Monday, May 16, 2005

Buckling under pressure?

Something seems fishy about the Newsweek retraction fiasco.

The tale began when a "longtime reliable" U.S. government source told reporter Michael Isikoff that a Southern Command report would include information about an incident in which a U.S. interrogator flushed a Koran down a toilet at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba. Several detainees had complained of such behavior in the past, but this would be the first official confirmation that a flushing incident occurred.

Newsweek contacted two Defense Department officials about the story. One declined to comment; another questioned another part of the story, which the magazine corrected before publication, but did not say the item about the Koran flushing was inaccurate. Based on a tip from a reliable source and an implicit confirmation of the information from a senior Pentagon official, Newsweek printed the story.

Then all hell broke loose. The story spread quickly through the Arab world, and protesters took to the streets in Afghanistan, resulting in 16 deaths and prompting some Muslim clerics to call for jihad against the United States. On Thursday, several days after the story went to press and after deadly protests began, U.S. officials said an internal investigation turned up no evidence that the incident occurred.

Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said that day that U.S. commanders thought the violence was fueled less by the Newsweek story than by local political tensions. Nonetheless, two days later, Isikoff's source, no doubt shaken by the fiery reaction to the story, backed away from his original statement. The source said he remembered reading investigative reports about Koran flushing but couldn't recall if the incident was mentioned in a SouthCom report.

This detail is crucial, and no mainstream U.S. media outlets have emphasized it thus far in their blowout coverage. We now know Newsweek's story was wrong in saying a SouthCom report mentioned a Koran flushing incident. Without more information, we don't know if it was wrong in saying the flushing incident occurred, or even in saying the incident was mentioned in a government report.

It's unclear just how prominent of a role that pressure from the Bush administration played in Newsweek's decision to retract the story today. With that being said, it wouldn't be unprecedented for a media outlet to back away from a controversial story, true or not, after facing administrative heat. These words from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seem both telling and a little ominous: "People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do."

The truth in this situation is nuanced. Sadly, nuance doesn't fit into a 10-second television soundbite.


Anonymous Joel said...

I just kept waiting for Bush to remind everyone about what happened to the last batch of nutjob Afghanis that thought jihad agains the US was a good idea.

9:01 AM  

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