May 19, 2005,
Oops, they did it again. The mainstream media have made another of their honest mistakes that just happen to hurt the Bush administration, or impugn the integrity of the U.S. military, or undermine our foreign policy, or as in this case all three.
Newsweek reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry infamously reported that FBI e-mails complaining about the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay included a report that a U.S. interrogator had flushed a Koran down the toilet, and that this allegation was confirmed in a forthcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) in Miami, responsible for Gitmo. Both of these claims are false. Anti-U.S. fanatics seized on the report to stir up riots that have left more than a dozen people dead in Pakistan and Afghanistan and destabilized the Karzai government. Newsweek should not be blamed for the violence, but its May 9 "Periscope" item was irresponsible, and telling.
Isikoff maintains that no breach of journalistic ethics occurred. But Newsweek ran an explosive item based on a single source (who has backtracked since). The magazine didn't obtain the relevant text from the SouthCom report or have it read over the phone. It tried to confirm its story with a spokesman for SouthCom who refused comment. It showed the story to a defense official who corrected one assertion unrelated to the Koran incident, and didn't comment on the rest. On this basis, Newsweek ran with it. Worse, the story was written in such a way as to obscure the fact that it was relying on a single source for its most inflammatory allegation. If this represents Newsweek's routine practice, then no one should ever again be so ready to believe a fact in the magazine preceded by that pregnant phrase, "Newsweek has learned . . ."
Newsweek's panting to get the Koran incident in the magazine was related to the media's general frenzy over Abu Ghraib. The press loved that story, because they believed that it put the lie to Bush's idealistic foreign policy and exposed the nasty underbelly of the U.S. military. It was the contemporary media's version of My Lai. They obsessed over it, and their conventional wisdom remains that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were the product of orders from on high, although court-martial proceedings and ten military inquiries have all fingered the unauthorized wrongdoing of a few low-level goons and idiots. The media's faith that the entire chain of command was responsible and not just for the appallingly loose command environment in the prison remains impervious to falsification. It was this attitude that informed Newsweek's reporting that erred in favor of believing the worst of the military.
Newsweek's editor has explained that the magazine tended to believe the Koran charge because similar allegations have been made by former detainees. But al-Qaeda detainees are trained to lie about their treatment, as we know from a training manual captured in Manchester, England, in 1998. In the new round of reporting on Gitmo that has been stirred up, it is possible that the media will discover instances of "culturally insensitive" treatment of detainees, perhaps even involving the Koran. This would in no way vindicate Newsweek in running its inadequately sourced, demonstrably false May 9 story.
strips bare once again the bias
of the ‘prestige media.’”
Even if such incidents turn up, the fact is that the military has bent over backward to accommodate Muslim sensitivities at Gitmo. A January 2003 memorandum stipulates that only Muslim chaplains handle the Koran and do so wearing clean gloves. Excessive? Perhaps. But such rules are also a cost-free way for the U.S. to demonstrate that its fight is not with Islam, only with militants who murder in its name. Gitmo has been much more closely supervised and buttoned-down than Abu Ghraib. Tough, out-of-the-ordinary interrogation techniques were likely authorized by the chain of command and applied only to detainees who were connected to the 9/11 plot or thought to be in possession of important information. Pressuring them in ways that violated their cultural taboos e.g., using female interrogators who acted suggestively would be understandable given the circumstances.
The entire Koran controversy is regrettable, tragic even. But at least it strips bare once again the bias of the "prestige media." Newsweek has earned its spot right beside the New York Times and CBS.
Editor's Note: This editorial appears in the June 6, 2005, issue of National Review.