Unanswered questions about Newsweek's false story

Marvin Olasky
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Posted: May 19, 2005 12:00 AM

Newsweek's retraction of its false Quran-down-the-toilet story still leaves at least 16 dead and at least that many unanswered questions. Here are a few:

  -- Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff says no one "foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Koran was going to create the kind of response that it did." Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas says Muslim reaction "came as something of a surprise" to the magazine's editors. But no one familiar with Islam was surprised: Ardent Muslims treat copies of the Quran reverently and never place it on the floor; desecrating the Quran in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia is a capital crime. Why are national magazine editors so theologically illiterate?

  -- If Newsweek journalists had been more knowledgeable about the likely reaction, would they still have run the story? The magazine on Oct. 21, 2002, ripped Jerry Falwell's riot-causing depiction of Muhammad as a "terrorist," since "Islamic fundamentalists are having a field day with these comments, which have been played and replayed throughout the Muslim world." Does Newsweek have a similar responsibility not to cry fire in a crowded theater?

  -- If Newsweek claims a responsibility to print the truth, even when it's likely to lead to riots, why didn't it try harder to ascertain the truth? Sourcery -- the use of anonymous sources -- has long been a journalistic problem, and going with one spectral speaker on something explosive like this seems particularly questionable. (The biblical standard is the testimony of two witnesses, and they have to be willing to come forward.)

  -- Why did Newsweek, after getting this story wrong, report new Quran-into-the-latrine charges made by terrorists and their allies? The magazine "balanced" the new allegations by reporting a U.S. colonel's statement that "If you read the Al Qaeda training manual, they are trained to make allegations against the infidels." But since terrorist testimony is not credible, why quote such charges without independent investigation?

  -- Did Newsweek go easy in scrutinizing the accusation because it is a sucker for attacks on the military and the Bush administration? At least once before, Isikoff has run with a false anti-military story on a one-source basis. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker told the Post that "there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here." If so, isn't it time to change the standards?

  -- Should Newsweek be pushed to reveal the name of the government official it says was its source? Some journalists have gone to jail rather than reveal names of anonymous sources, but what's the responsibility when the source has borne false witness and caused the loss of innocent life? Shouldn't journalists offer only conditional anonymity, with the condition being, "tell the truth"?

  -- Will other big media declare their firm opposition to sneak attacks such as those Newsweek is famous for? Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne opined on Oct. 18, 2002, that President Bush should go after Falwell because "one test of leadership is a willingness to take on your own side ? Mr. President, we're waiting." The Post, which has the same parent company as Newsweek, has been mild in its critique of its own side. Washington Post, we're waiting.

  -- What does the riotous reaction tell us about Islam? Why do many Muslims leap into deadly activities at the drop of a story like this, or a report during a beauty pageant that Muhammad -- so his friends said -- liked and seized beautiful women? At least now, maybe, fewer people will buy the movie "Kingdom of Heaven's" sweet depiction of Islam.

  -- Is there a sickness at the heart of press liberalism that leads many journalists to want the Guantanamo story to be true? Given the way Islamofascists act, do these journalists have a death wish for themselves and Western civilization?