Flushing Newsweek

Flushing Newsweek

Flushing Newsweek

The latest chatter in cyberspace.
May 16 2005 7:33 PM

Flushing Newsweek

Flushing Newsweek: Newsweek retreated Sunday from a report in its May 9 issue "that American guards at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had committed infractions in trying to get terror suspects to talk, including in one case flushing a Qur'an down a toilet." Today, the magazine officially retracted the story, which has been cited as a precipitating cause of the violent anti-American riots that swept across Afghanistan last week, killing at least 15. Acknowledging that the reporters' original source had since backed away from the story, Editor Mark Whitaker wrote, "we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst." (Both Slate and Newsweek are owned by the Washington Post Co.)

"History may see Newsweek's fatal 'Koran flushing' story as the US press' Abu Ghraib," writes novelist and military columnist Austin Bay. "Here's the connection: globe-girdling technology has once again amplified foolish behavior, lack of professionalism, and disregard for consequences into a tragedy."

Around the blogosphere, the Newsweek mea culpa gets a drubbing. Conservative syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin pillories the waffly back-pedaling, and plenty of others pile on. "Not good enough, Newsweek. People have died because of your shoddy work," scolds liberal and self-described autodidact Dean Esmay. Most watchdog bloggers are equally dismayed. "This mistake cost people their lives, put the lives of our soldiers in the Mideast at risk, damaged the American position in the effort to defend itself and spread democracy, and damaged the already tattered reputation of journalism," writes steadfast critic Jeff Jarvis. "And to what end?"

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Plenty of bloggers see the scandal as final proof of the bankruptcy of the mainstream media and their self-policing apparatuses. "Newsweek ran an explosive story based on a single, unnamed source that it knew would cause a huge effect on the Muslim world, at precisely the moment when we need to ensure that people understand that we're not at war with Islam," writes influential conservative Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters. Mystery novelist turned blog entrepreneur Roger L. Simon thinks the halfhearted apologia Newsweek issued Sunday avoids "the real problem, the anonymous sourcing that should be the instrument of a totalitarian press, not a free one. They seem [instead] to blame the problem on Michael Isikoff having misjudged his source." And who is that source? "Newsweek isn't saying. Until they report such things as that, I won't believe a word the magazine says. Why would anybody?"

Michael Demmons at Gay Orbit thinks that Newsweek should fire reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry for shoddy reporting but wonders exactly how responsible they are for the riots in Afghanistan. The magazine, he writes, "screwed up badly, but the death and destruction is a result of crazy, psychopathic people incapable of forming a rational response that doesn't include, well, killing and destruction." InstaPundit reader John Lynch agrees. "Newsweek isn't the problem," he writes. "The problem is that people will kill over a book being desecrated … The problem is an ignorant and violent subculture within the islamic world, and the general lack of tolerance about religion therein."

But Glenn Reynolds, InstaPundit himself, challenges that reading: "At a larger, moral level this may be true. But given that this was entirely predictable given that (1) Al Qaeda propaganda turns on stuff like this; and (2) Historically, such rumors have been used to stir up trouble in the region. … If the folks at Newsweek are too ignorant to realize this, or too sloppy to care, then they shouldn't be in the news business." At Outside the Beltway, James Joyner joins Reynolds in criticizing the newsmagazine but thinks that those bloggers calling Newsweek editors "enemy propagandists" go too far. "The proper sanction against Newsweek is increased public skepticism of stories with a 'Newsweek' byline. … Credibility is the chief currency of the press," he writes, adding, "Newsweek is much poorer than it was last week."

Newsweek finds a rare defender in the Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum, who writes that the story was merely a pretext for the riots, not their cause. Conservative Andrew Sullivan, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration on torture issues, offers another perspective. "I think it's telling that some bloggers have devoted much, much more energy to covering the Newsweek error than they ever have to covering any sliver of the widespread evidence of detainee abuse that made the Newsweek piece credible in the first place," he writes. "A simple question: after U.S. interrogators have tortured over two dozen detainees to death, after they have wrapped one in an Israeli flag, after they have smeared naked detainees with fake menstrual blood, after they have told one detainee to 'Fuck Allah,' after they have ordered detainees to pray to Allah in order to kick them from behind in the head, is it completely beyond credibility that they would also have desecrated the Koran?" Though he does fault Newsweek,Sullivan believes that, "Three factors interacted here: media error/bias, Islamist paranoia, and a past and possibly current policy of religiously-intolerant torture. No one comes out looking good."

Read Newsweek's report on the story and its fallout. Read Michelle Malkin, the Mudville Gazette, and Judicious Asininity on the search for the anonymous source. Read more blog posts about the Newsweek report.

Have a question, comment, or suggestion for Today's Blogs? E-mail todaysblogs@slate.com.

David Wallace-Wells is a writer living in New York.