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?