A pox on everybody

Posted: May 20, 2005 12:00 AM

This Newsweek thing has me disagreeing with everybody, even the people who say everybody's wrong.

First, the obvious: Newsweek messed up. Nobody disputes that, not even Newsweek. That in itself makes the Newsweek episode very different from the CBS "memogate" scandal. CBS stonewalled, whitewashed and distorted as much as it could at every turn. Dan Rather is still agnostic about whether those memos were real, and his former producer, Mary Mapes, is sticking to her guns like a marooned Japanese soldier looking to shoot down planes years after the war's over.

Beyond the fact that Newsweek messed up, opinions fly out in all directions. I've gotten stacks of e-mail from readers insisting that Mike Isikoff - the reporter most responsible for the mistake - is, in the words of one, an "anti-American Trotskyist." This is nonsense on stilts. Isikoff is simply a reporter, better than most, who messed up. More about the press in a moment.

Conservatives are also suddenly molly-coddling Islamic fanatics as if they can't help themselves from rioting. Look, birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and jihadi nutbags have to riot. Such is the nature of things. Normally, conservatives grasp this - but that's when the riots are inadvertently caused by something President Bush does or says. When Newsweek accidentally causes riots, the "gotcha" logic kicks in.

Condescension toward the Muslim "street" is bipartisan. Indeed, liberals aren't saying the jihadi riots are inexcusable, they're saying the protests were justified because America is surely guilty of things just as bad. After all, freed detainees have reported that the Koran was desecrated, and we know things got pretty hardcore at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. This argument holds that because the Koran story was "fake but plausible," Bush's defenders have no right to get too righteous.

There's more than a little truth to this. (Still, the idea that a Koran-sized book could be flushed in the first place never passed the smell test; if the U.S. military has such toilets and is keeping them secret, I'm filing my FOIA request tomorrow.) America has not been playing by Queensbury rules with captured terrorists.

But there's also a heaping, steamy pile of hypocrisy here too. When "artists" dip the crucifix in urine or spackle the Virgin Mary with manure, this same crowd waxes Olympian in it haughty contempt for anybody who even complains about it. Imagine for a fraction of a second their reaction if Christians in this country broke into deadly riots over such things. If you think anybody at The Nation would pause before denouncing Christian American rioters as subhuman fanatics, you should lay off the crack.

In a recent column, David Brooks makes similar arguments about the mistakes of the left and right. But he goes too far himself when he says that ideological bias has nothing to do with Newsweek's mistakes. "Whatever might have been the cause of their mistakes, liberalism had nothing to do with it," he wrote.

I'm sorry, I don't buy this either. Newsweek has run countless stories about the alleged mistreatment of prisoners. The piece in which the Koran allegation appeared was the umpteenth iteration of the same story we've heard so many times before. Isikoff may have bollixed this story, but the fact he was still hammering away on this theme isn't irrelevant.

We are in new territory when it comes to the media's relationship with the military. During World War II, reporters happily subjected themselves to censors and wore military uniforms. Today, they agonize about whether to wear American flag pins on their lapels. In 1987, Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace openly boasted at a conference that being a journalist trumped being an American. When Wallace was asked if warning American soldiers about an imminent ambush might be a higher duty than getting 30 seconds of videotape, he snapped back: "No. You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!"

After 9/11, the president of ABC News told a roomful of journalism students that he couldn't take a position on whether the attack on the Pentagon - by thugs who butchered innocent civilians with box-cutters - was "right or wrong. . As a journalist I feel strongly that's something that I should not be taking a position on."

In the 1990s, Michael Isikoff had several of his stories famously spiked or delayed by editors at the Washington Post and Newsweek. The allegations within were explosive, but better sourced than the Koran story. But these pieces revealed President Clinton's extramarital adventures. Why would his editors want to think twice about running them, but not the Koran story? Within 48 hours after 9/11, the news networks agreed to discontinue showing Americans leaping to their deaths from the twin towers on the grounds that it would be too disturbing for the American public. Why is disturbing the American public taboo, but disturbing our enemies around the globe OK?

Regardless, there is a way to unite rather than divide here. The one person who cannot be defended in any way is the guy who leaked the Koran story in the first place. If it were true, he'd be a jerk. That it's false makes him something even worse.