Thursday, May 19, 2005

Looking at the Newsweek fiasco

It's about damn time I got heavily into this Newsweek business, since I think I've got a couple valid points to bring up. I know the story has been done to death in the blogosphere, but I think this is a great opportunity to mention a couple glaring inconsistencies, point a couple fingers, and also rip on the Huffington Post to boot.

Let's look at the facts of the case so far. Newsweek publishes a story by Mike Isikoff alleging that U.S. troops had disgraced Muslim prisoners by flushing a copy of the Koran down a toilet.The story was met with outrage across the Muslim world, and 17 people were killed in the resultant riots.

After a rather awkward pause, Newsweek retracted the story, but remained under pressure from the White House (at least Scott McClellan) to go further than simply retract the article, suggesting that Newsweek run a piece detailing the rather extensive list of standards and practices the U.S. military has in place to ensure cultural sensitivity.

Okay. In addition to these facts, I think there are a few things we can agree on:

1) Newsweek was hasty and slipshod in rushing this piece to press without fact-checking. Isikoff's source is "unnamed," and whatever information he had should have been backed up by corroborating accounts from people willing to go on the record.

2) The story caused significant damage to the already shaky reputation of the U.S. government and military in the Middle East.

3) It's impossible to flush a Koran - or even a pocket-sized Gideon's Bible - down the toilet.

Here's what I've found in terms of the spectrum of reactions online:

1) The Newsweek-should-burn theory: Newsweek is directly responsible for the deaths of the 17 people killed in the riots that occurred after the article's publication.

2) The Why-the-hell-should-anyone-think-that-people-are-going-to-be-killed-over-a-Newsweek-story theory: Newsweek may indeed have rushed their story to publication, but how were they supposed to know that the reaction would be death and mayhem?

3) The Newsweek-may-be-bad-but-Bush-is-worse theory: 17 deaths based on false information is much "less bad" than the thousands who have died due to the president's decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place.

The third view is laughable, and it's the one being trumpeted by Arianna Huffington and her super-celeb-blog-friends at the Huffington Post. Let's get something straight here. Whatever your position on the White House's policies is, there is no instance in which the government's actions serve as an excuse for lesser wrongdoing by the press.

Here's how it works. We elect slimy cash-whores to represent us at the state and federal levels, mostly because we only have the choice between one or more slimy cash-whores. They tend to be the only ones willing to do it. We know they're willing to sell each and every one of us out if the worm turns, and it's the press' job to let us know when that's happening, or when the slimy cash-whores become slimier, greedier, or sluttier.

The first perspective is tempting, but even if Newsweek slandered the United States intentionally, I don't know if they could have predicted the actual reaction from the radical Muslim world.

So there's the second perspective, which basically blames the Middle East for overreacting to something that clearly isn't worth killing anyone over. I like that idea, because we tend to get away from the idea that there is a certain level of psychosis required to saw someone's head off on a video camera, or to fly airliners full of people into skyscrapers full of people, and there seems to be plenty to go around.

But the press ought to have a better sensitivity to what they're doing, as explained by Wretchard inthis post at The Belmont Club.

Times have changed, Wretchard says, and as the military has had to alter their understanding of the acceptability of "collateral damage," so too should the press.