Monday, May 16, 2005

Newsweek and the Riots

By now, you're all aware that Newsweek has issued a mea culpa about a story in it May 23rd issue in which writers Michael Isikoff and John Barry reported on a source's contention that military interrogators at Guantanomo Bay had flushed a copy of a prisoner's Koran down a toilet. The story, says Newsweek, "sparked angry and violent protests across the Muslim world from Afghanistan, where 16 were killed and more than 100 injured, to Pakistan to Indonesia to Gaza. In the past week it was condemned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and by the Arab League. On Sunday, Afghan Muslim clerics threatened to call for a holy war against the United States."By now, you've no doubt heard people blaming the liberal media, or blaming the media in general for being careless and sparking these riots. I don't think any of this is true and I think that Newsweek went too far in it's apology.

First, in defense of the writers: Sources do make mistakes. Sometimes great sources make mistakes. One thing you try to do, as a journalist, is to verify what people are telling you. Sometimes, it's easy. If a source tells you that George Washington was at the Gettysburg Address you can pretty easily figure out that the source is wrong. But, in this case -- the source tells you that soldiers at Gitmo flushed a Koran down a toilet, what can you do? Well, first, I guess you call the Pentagon and they deny it. Does that prove the source wrong, though? No, the Pentagon tells lies and half truths all the time. All this tells you is that the Pentagon denied it, not that your source is wrong.

Next, you ask if it's possible to flush a book down a toilet. You realize quickly that, yes, if you tear the pages out, it's pretty easy.

Of course, you ask if its plausible that our troops would behave this way. Uh... yes, it is.

One point of contention here is that the Newsweek source backed off from the story, after the fact. Originally, they said this would be in a Pentagon report. The Pentagon says they investigated this, it never happened, and it's not in the report. The source hedged, saying maybe it was in a draft report. Again, though, we're judging truth here by what the Pentagon chooses to release in its reports. I'm not prepared to say "it didn't happen" based on that."

Count two against Newsweek is that its story caused the riots. Even Newsweek admits to this. I think it's a childishly simplistic view of the events. Sure, the Newsweek story made people angry,but the riots and demonstrations weren't caused by one news story or one accusation. The demonstrators have a litany of complaints. Had our behavior in those prison camps and in the two countries we now occupy not been so shoddy, one could imagine that this story would not have sparked riots and demonstrations. The White House and the Pentagon will be happy to blame all of this on Newsweek, but come on... the real problem here is that even most mainstream Americans, on the left and right, read a story about a US soldier desecrating the sacred Muslim book and think, in context of what they already know: "well, sure he did." They don't hate us because of some little story in Newsweek that can be retracted into oblivion. They hate us for patterns of behavior that stretch back years in the case of prisoner abuse and decades when you consider our support for dictatorships in the Middle East.

Let's not miss the larger view here.


At 9:18 AM , Blogger tifanie said...

You are absolutely right. Whether or not this event actually happened, we know that there has been terrible treatment, and historical hatred and mistreatment. The riots will happen for one reason or another, and continue to happen until something is actually resolved.


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