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.