What we all might say in behalf of Dan Rather is that last year's George Bush/National Guard fable, however shabbily conceived and accomplished, didn't get anyone killed. No one can say such a thing about Newsweek's Guantanamo/Koran story, which as of May 16 had gotten at least 17 rioters killed here and there -- while damaging U.S. relations with the Islamic world in ways unknowable.
All this on account of one short report in the magazine's "Periscope" section of May 9 -- a report played up expertly by Islamist agitators; to wit, that "in an attempt to rattle" terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. interrogators "flushed a Qur'an [as Newsweek ingratiatingly spelled 'Koran'] down a toilet." Next thing we knew, students in the Afghan capital of Kabul were burning an American flag, chanting "Death to America," and fanning out to attack international relief agencies and beat up their staffs. In the town of Khogyani, police fired into a crowd of hundreds.
At last came Newsweek's lame apology. The source for the story -- "a senior U.S. government official who was knowledgeable about the matter" -- couldn't, um, be sure he/she had been right after all; therefore, the magazine regretted that "we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence," etc. Well, you win some, you lose some ...
You sure do, all of us journalists (however grand and over-advertised) being humans as well as journalists. We all make mistakes. Some of us start as early as possible. (Ah, the stories I could tell from very personal experience!)
Why the fuss, then, over the Koran story? Well, partly, of course, on account of the deaths the story caused directly, and the damage it continues to inflict on the interests of the United States. Can that be all, though? I think we see in the cold, casual dissection of American tactics in the terror war the kind of performance we have come to expect of the U.S. media.
Plenty of Americans no longer regard the media as automatically, reflexively, on America's side in foreign contests. Where's the quaint presumption nowadays that the people who tell the stories, and those who view or read them, share an interest in their country's success? You hope for that presumption, and sometimes you find it. Disturbingly often what you find instead is liberal-tilting American reporters covering American war efforts with the same critical "detachment" Al Jazeera might bring to the task.
Alas, America's reporting establishment, like its academic and cultural establishments, is hugely, overwhelmingly "blue state." It tends not to trust those who act in behalf of an administration -- George W. Bush's -- whose policies they fault almost across the board.
Yes, one can too easily generalize about these things. There has been first-rate reporting -- and first-rate, pro-American soldier reporting -- about Iraq. It should be added that our honorable profession, with its First Amendment commission, is in the news business, not the business of shilling for whoever happens to run the government at the moment.
It ill behooves the media all the same, for its own sake as well as the country's, to pretend that the American war effort (this includes prisoner interrogation) is a thing to be covered with fine "impartiality," like the NBA playoffs. As we see this week, consequences flow from different modes of presentation.
The nature of the war -- a battle against faceless terrorism instead of enemy armies -- changes the nature of the job. The same for the seeming inexhaustibility of the present enemy. On and on this enterprise goes; where it stops, nobody knows.
Factor all that into the equation and still excuses aren't possible for a media establishment that displays, through what it tells and what it omits to tell, its dark suspicions of the policy to which its country has committed itself.
So Newsweek "regrets" having gotten "part" of its Guantanamo story wrong! It's a start, no doubt. But, oh, the cost of it in terms we haven't begun to tote up.