Here we go again.
Newsweek has apologized for a brief report in the May 9 issue of the magazine about interrogation abuses at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay that claimed, “interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Koran down a toilet.” The report was based on a single “knowledgeable U.S. government source,” who now says he cannot be sure that his information was correct. It was not disputed at the time by two separate Defense Department officials that Newsweek ran it past — though one of the two declined to respond at all to the magazine’s inquiry. The magazine’s report has been blamed for a recent wave of anti-American protest in the Muslim world, most seriously in Afghanistan, where 16 people were killed and over 100 injured.
Contrary to some headlines, Newsweek is not saying that the incident with the Koran did not occur: “As to whether anything like this happened, we just don’t know,” Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker told the Washington Post. “We’re not saying it absolutely happened but we can’t say that it absolutely didn’t happen either.” It also remains unclear what role the Newsweek report ultimately played in sparking the riots, though it’s clear from eyewitness reports that the magazine’s article at least stoked the protesters’ already-simmering anger.
A few notes:
First off, apology notwithstanding, Newsweek isn’t off the hook. The magazine’s reporters and editors failed to vet a potentially explosive story carefully enough, opting to trust a longtime source, despite the lack of any real corroboration. Contrast that with the reporting done on another significant and emotionally charged story: Spokane, Washington mayor Jim West’s sexual and emotional involvement with young men he met in Internet chat rooms. In order to corroborate the story of one young man who lacked proof of his interactions with the mayor, the Spokesman-Review took controversial but ultimately worthwhile steps that not only confirmed that its reporting on the mayor was accurate but that also led to fresh evidence for its article. Granted, there’s a difference between a three-year newspaper investigation and a newsweekly assembling a short front-of-the-book item. But Newsweek failed to take any significant steps to shore up its reporting before publication, opting instead to trust a single source and to hope like hell that he wasn’t wrong or lying.
There are, however, a few details that should be considered by the armada of self-righteous media critics so readily offering up unqualified condemnations of the magazine. First off, Newsweek couldn’t have expected its story to stir up so much Muslim anger, given that details about Guantanamo interrogators allegedly defacing the Koran have been periodically published for more than a year now. A Nexis search reveals multiple mentions of similar allegations, including a March 14, 2004 report in the London Observer that “copies of the Koran would be trampled on by soldiers and, on one occasion, thrown into a toilet bucket”; an August 5, 2004 report in the London Independent that “guards allegedly threw prisoners’ Korans into toilets;” and January 2005 reports in the Denver Post and Hartford Courant that some prisoners “were forced to watch copies of the Koran being flushed down toilets.” Given that none of these previous reports sparked protest, much less riots, it’s unrealistic to expect the magazine’s editors to have seen the protests coming — after all, they thought the detail was insignificant enough to be confined to one sentence in a short report tucked away in the front of the magazine. (True, the Newsweek piece claimed the allegations about disrespecting the Koran came from a government report, while previous pieces relied on eyewitness accounts. But the magazine can be forgiven for not expecting protestors to parse the difference.)