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May 16, 2005

Roiling Flush
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

So the State Department and Pentagon are madder than hell over Newsweek's poorly sourced report on the Koran flushing incident, discussed here and here.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says: 

"It's appalling, really, that an article that was unfounded to begin with has caused so much harm, including loss of life,

"One would expect, as the facts come out of how this story was written - one would, in fact, expect more than the kind of correction we've seen so far . . . it's very clear to us nonetheless that the effects around the world have been very bad."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan:

"The report has had serious consequences . . . People have lost their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged."

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman:

"Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations."

Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita:

"They owe us all a lot more accountability than they took."

All these quotes were reported in the New York Times.

If in fact the allegations cannot be substantiated than the Newsweek story will go down in the annals of American journalism as a crushing embarrassment and a somber reminder of the life and death consequences of getting the story right.

But there are a couple of other facts worth noting here.  First, the Newsweek story was run by two Pentagon officials prior to publication, neither of whom disputed the Koran charge.  Also, at a press conference last Thursday Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard Myers minimized the link between the Newsweek story and the Afghan riots, saying that the violence stemmed from other sources.

Two conclusions emerge:  one, that Pentagon officials did not think the Koran allegations so far-fetched as to question them; two, that there's enough anti-American sentiment and unrest in Afghanistan that Myers didn't think the Koran provocation mattered all that much as part of the mix.

The larger point is that we best not let our indignation over faulty journalism blind them to the circumstances that rendered the Newsweek story the firebomb it became.    After all, 60 Minutes reported just a week ago about menstrual blood being used in Gitmo detentions, an allegation that seems comparably inflammatory, and one that I don't think elicited a peep of rebuttal. 

We have created an environment in which the Koran story seemed credible to those who heard it, including savvy journalists and military officials, and where anti-American riots may not need any special provocation. 

Less than a week ago I wrote this on Dan's blog:

One of the most serious consequences of the U.S.'s lapses in upholding the human rights and related standards that we purport to represent is that we play into the hands of those who claim that our ideals are empty or hypocritical. We allow them to call into quesetion the promise that our principles signify in the minds of their populations. We sow doubts in the minds of people that would otherwise tend to cleave in the values the U.S. stands for, rather than listening to the promises of corrupt leaders.[Ed. I just added this para from the original post on Drezner to make clear that, despite what I say immediately below, I don't regard the Abu Ghraib abuses as purely individual acts - I think the blame has to be a lot broader than that.  I should have said in the sentence below "Some may . . ." rather than "We can . . ."]

We can write off Abu Ghraib as the work of a few misfits. But in the eyes of much of the rest of the world the abuses were linked to a pattern of disregard for international norms governing the treatment of detainees.

Particularly given our under-investment in public diplomacy, we have limited ability to shape how our actions are seen from the outside. When we are seen as not taking the problem seriously, that adds further fuel to the fire of those trying to fan skepticism about American motives.

Though we may not always see the link, I suspect we will be living with the consequences of Abu Ghraib for a long time to come in the form of charges of hypocrisy, doubts about American sincerity, and a sense around the world that America does not hold itself to the standards it would impose on others.

Lawrence DiRita is demanding accountability from Newsweek, but when the Abu Ghraib allegations were revealed he said that those implicated were "still only a tiny percentage of the more than 300,000 troops who have served in Iraq" and that "If you look at the tenor of the coverage, it's been focused on policies and procedures that are at best indirectly associated with the activities at that prison."  Hmm.  Not much accountability there.

Newsweek made a blunder that has led to horrific consequences.  But we all know that the reason its mistake was so serious has everything to do with the context in which it occurred, a context of the Administration's making.  DiRita's insistence on accountability from Newsweek would sound a lot less tinny if accompanied by some accountability from the Pentagon's end as well.

[Ed. one key here is that the facts are not yet fully aired on whether or not the toilet incident occurred.  Flushing of the Koran was described in a witness statement taken by a Shearman & Sterling attorney and filed in a pleading in the U.S. Distict Court for the District of Columbia.  That Newsweek's sourcing was inadequate doesn't mean the incident did not happen. I don't think we know for sure yet.]


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Exactly when did it become common accepted practice to run a story by an official and to take a lack of a denial as some sort of proof the story is accurate? Is this not exactly, in part, what was done in the CBS debacle? As it turns out of course what was originally reported as "sources" has now become a single source. A single source "confirmed" by a lack of offical denial. Call me crazy but I'm not thrilled by the idea of the media expecting my tax dollars to partially pay for their fact checking.

The lack of sensitivity charge is of course perfectly valid; however, that entire line of thought misses a key point. While it's true one should expect many muslims to be outraged, even to the point of violent riots, knowing a Koran was desecrated, this behavior itself is extreme. You don't see any riots in the US when the US flag is burned in foreign lands. It would be extremely difficult to imagine violent riots over the desecration of a bible. We did have some peacefull protests over things like Christ on a Cross in a jar of urine but to my recollection it did not turn violent.

The problem with fundamentalism is lack of tolerance. The desecration of a Koran should not be remotely seen as a justification for violence much less the many people who died. It should be seen as an offensive act deserving of lawfull punishment.

It is simply not acceptable to live in a world where the accusation that someone stepped on, spit on, kicked, burned, or flushed down the toilet an object of religous value is seen as justification for violence. If so we all prisoners to the actions of a very few and there can never be peace among god's children.

Lane Brody

But there are a couple of other facts worth noting here. First, the Newsweek story was run by two Pentagon officials prior to publication, neither of whom disputed the Koran charge.


They didn't confirm it, either. Are you familiar with the problems inherent in proving a negative?


Two conclusions emerge: one, that Pentagon officials did not think the Koran allegations so far-fetched as to question them;


I thought verifying the reliability of a source was the JOURNALIST'S job...? Where the hell do you get off blaming the Pentagon for Newsweek's screwup?

--"We can write off Abu Ghraib as the work of a few misfits..."---

We can? An FBI e-mail refers to an Executive Order that authorizes stress positions, sleep deprivation, and the use of military dogs on prisoners, among other things. We have autopsy reports from Gitmo documenting deaths from "blunt force injuries." Another FBI e-mail says that an agent "observed numerous physical abuse incidents of Iraqi civilian detainees," including "strangulation, beatings, [and] placement of lit cigarettes into the detainees ear openings."

We know Rumsfeld personally approved of classifying at least one prisoner as a "ghost detainee," and that the only reason to categorize a person this way is so we can hide him from the Red Cross and do what we want to him.

You concede far too much in your attempt to be even-handed.

Free speech can be effective and non hatefull all at the same time. The americans flushed Korans, yes, after they murdered innocent children, raped prisioners, and perpetrated countless other violations of human rights. Flushing a book is irrelevant compared to those actions.

Check out where anyone can flush a holy book, even you!

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