The Newsweek riots

Rich Lowry
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Posted: May 17, 2005 12:00 AM

How many stories has Newsweek written about the Bush administration allegedly "skewing intelligence" by relying on raw, insufficiently sourced data? How many times has it lamented that these mistakes have hurt the U.S. abroad? Too many to count.

What would be funny if it weren't so tragic is that some of them were authored by reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry, the very duo that has itself dealt the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan a blow by stretching poorly sourced information into a false report about the deliberate desecration of the Koran by U.S. interrogators.

Isikoff and Barry wrote in the May 9 edition: "Investigators probing interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay have confirmed some infractions alleged in internal FBI e-mails that surfaced late last year. Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell Newsweek: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet." They continued that "these findings (are) expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command [SouthCom] in Miami." Based on the report, destabilizing and deadly anti-U.S. riots broke out in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The report gave the impression that (1) FBI e-mails from Gitmo mentioned the Koran-flushing incident; (2) the incident had been confirmed; and (3) it was about to appear in a U.S. government report. All of these claims are, according to the Pentagon, false (which is not to say that nothing bad ever happened at Gitmo).

No one is perfect ? not even the brilliant Mike Isikoff ? but this is a telling error. One government official told Isikoff that he had seen the Koran-desecrating incident in the forthcoming Gitmo report. Newsweek tried to confirm this. But a spokesman for SouthCom refused comment because it is an ongoing investigation. Another Defense official attempted to correct one error unrelated to the Koran desecration, but didn't comment on the rest. With this solid nonconfirmation in hand, Newsweek ran with its explosive single-sourced item.

Once people started dying, Isikoff's original source said he couldn't be sure that he had read about the incident in the SouthCom report. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker issued a weaselly statement saying that "we regret that we got any part of our story wrong," without detailing what the errors were. Nor did he forthrightly apologize ? although Newsweek was part of the press pack demanding that President Bush acknowledge and apologize for his errors during last year's presidential campaign.

It is, of course, unfair to blame the magazine for the deadly work of anti-American fanatics abroad. But it can be blamed for its shoddy original work, for its nonapology, and for the media culture of hostility toward the military that makes its mistake so characteristic. That is not to say that any of its reporters or editors harbors personal animosity toward the military. But they work in an industry that has defined its success since the Vietnam War almost exclusively in terms of exposing U.S. wrongdoing. The media collectively want to believe the worst about the military, and in light of Abu Ghraib, they have panted after every possible prison abuse.

During the fallout from last year's CBS forged-documents flap, shrewd Newsweek political writer Howard Fineman said: "A political party is dying before our eyes ? and I don't mean the Democrats. I'm talking about the 'mainstream media.'" He argued that the media had been identified with a crusading liberalism since Watergate and Vietnam, but their power was waning in the new political and information environment: "It's hard to know who, if anyone, in the 'media' has any credibility."

It's only getting harder. Back in November 2003, Newsweek complained in a cover story that Vice President Dick Cheney "bought into shady assumptions" leading into the Iraq war, partly because of his "dire view of the terrorist threat." In its Koran story, Newsweek itself bought into shady assumptions, partly because of the media's dire view of the U.S. military. And so the media party continues its decline.