A bad year for the press

Posted: May 18, 2005 12:00 AM

It has been a bad year for mainstream journalism. USA Today found one of its star reporters invented some of his stories. CBS got burned by its biggest name -- Dan Rather -- when he ran with an anti-Bush piece on "60 Minutes Wednesday" based on forged documents, right during the middle of the presidential campaign. Several newspapers have had to deal with reporters who plagiarized some of their articles. Now Newsweek has had to retract a false story about American guards desecrating the Koran that sparked anti-American rioting throughout the Muslim world, killing at least 17 people. And still the media scions seem not to have a clue why this keeps happening.

 Call it bias or just plain arrogance, but the media just don't get it. The latest example is the most disheartening, and not just because of the terrible loss of life. Fanatical Islamo-fascists are responsible for the bloodshed, not the journalists who were merely unwitting dupes. But that does not let those journalists off the hook or explain why they were so quick to assume the worst about the U.S. military's tactics in the War on Terror.

 Journalists are supposed to be skeptical, that's what keeps them digging rather than simply accepting the official line, whether it comes from government or corporate bureaucrats. Where journalists have gotten themselves in trouble over the last few decades is that their skepticism often extends only to American officials, the U.S. military and Republican politicians. Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek reporter who wrote the short item on alleged abuses at Guantanamo that appeared in the magazine's Periscope section, based his story on an unnamed government source. The usual journalistic rule is to get at least one additional confirmation before running with an anonymous allegation of this sort. Isikoff's excuse for not doing so is that he vetted the entire piece with another unnamed official, who apparently didn't raise objections to that specific part of the story. But when the Pentagon vigorously denounced the allegation as entirely false, Isikoff's "source" began having second thoughts and couldn't remember where he'd heard the story in the first place.

 Isikoff should have nailed that down before he rushed to print. Why didn't he? Because it fit with what has become journalistic orthodoxy on the War on Terror. Many journalists seem to believe that we have become little different from our enemies. It is all about moral equivalence: The enemy kills innocent people; we kill innocent people (though the media grudgingly admit the latter occurs more often by accident). The enemy tortures and beheads its victims; we strip ours naked and put hoods over their heads while making them perform sexual acts. If you read only the pages of the New York Times or most of the other big dailies or weekly magazines, you'd believe that the United States -- as a matter of policy -- seeks to degrade Muslim detainees at every opportunity.

 In fact, the U.S. military has bent over backwards to respect the religious beliefs of some very dangerous fanatics who want to kill us. We give detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo copies of the Koran; we allow them to pray and celebrate their feast days; and we strictly prohibit any disrespect to detainees' religious beliefs and observance. The military has gone so far as to proscribe who may touch the Koran and how it must be handled. In a January 2003 memo, the Pentagon issued rules saying only Muslim chaplains and interpreters can handle the Koran, and only after donning clean gloves in plain sight of the detainees. The memo directs personnel to use both hands when handling the Koran out of "respect and reverence."

 The Washington Post reported this information -- but only after Newsweek retracted its original story. Just as much of the media jumped on CBS once it became clear that Dan Rather and company had been duped by Democrat partisans during the campaign, the media is doing some hand-wringing over the Newsweek flap. But mistakes like the one Michael Isikoff and Newsweek made will continue to occur if the media refuse to become as skeptical of those who hate America as they are of those who love and defend her.