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In Newsweek fiasco, journalistic and official mistakes were made
Scripps Howard News Service


May 17, 2005

"... Others complained that American soldiers insulted Islam by sitting on the Koran or dumping their sacred text into a toilet to taunt them."

- From the third paragraph of a March 26, 2003, Washington Post story from Kabul, that ran on page A12, beneath the headline: Returning Afghans Talk of Guantanamo

Before we focus on the multiple mistakes, journalistic and official, that led Newsweek to retract its 10-sentence news squib reporting that a U.S. military document would say U.S. interrogators taunted terrorist suspects by flushing the Koran down a toilet, before we note the haunting truth that no one can retract the deadly riots Newsweek's squib ignited in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries, nor restore the 17 who died and hundreds who were injured - we must first force ourselves to recall and rethink:

What did we know and when did we know it?

The answer is that we knew a lot and cared little.

The other day, Newsweek's beleaguered editor, Mark Whitaker, was dutifully wallowing through the television network circuit, owning up to what went wrong with that item in Newsweek's "Periscope" section, which presents bits that seem to be a cross between news and gossip. On NBC News, in a revealing moment, Newsweek's editor allowed as how he had never expected such a little item would cause such a huge, awful result. That seemed to me to be the start of the problem.

Somewhere in the highest echelons of journalism, we have come to think that there are different standards for truth. There is truth so big it should be spread all over the front pages of our newspapers, the covers of our newsmags, the top of the prime-time news. That truth must be checked by multiple sources, and government officials must be asked to comment on the record, of course.

But we seem to have developed another standard for truth - for news that is just small stuff that will be buried somewhere inside the newspaper, the newsmag, the newscast. Multiple confirming sources aren't really required, nor are official comments. It turns out that Newsweek did a fairly good bit of checking and reporting - for what our journalistic craft mistakenly thinks is good enough for just a news squib.

A Pentagon official allegedly blew it big-time because when Newsweek shared the item with the official before it was printed, the official didn't object or say it was false. But no official on-the-record comment was sought - a mistake that could have saved Newsweek's face and saved people's lives half a world away.

But wait. Two years ago, The Washington Post recounted the same atrocious acts - flushing the Koran down a commode to shake up terror suspects. It was not a squib but a good-sized story (891 words). Yet the Post buried it inside - and didn't even think it important enough to get and publish an official U.S. government comment on this act of religious desecration. All Newsweek added this month was a purported official acknowledgement that the government knew it happened.

But wait again. Of course the government knew. The military even issued written orders that the Koran was to be treated respectfully and not defiled.

Finally, we get to the crux of what has gone so sordidly wrong. There was no outrage. In a fervently faith-based administration that is running our certifiably faith-based nation ("one nation, under god"), why was there no instant outrage at even the suggestion that any American authority might desecrate any religion's holiest book?

Why did The Washington Post and Newsweek not see this as the page-one cover-story outrage it is? And why did journalists not sense the outrage of the silence and question our leaders about the persecution of someone else's holiest of religious symbols? What would our leaders and our press corps be saying and writing if someone in some other land flushed the Holy Bible down a toilet?

When Newsweek's squib first ran, I went to a bar in one of America's most affluent places, Potomac, Maryland, a Washington suburb where the horse farms are separated by McMansions. I recounted the news about the Koran being flushed to shame the prisoners. Turned out I was the only one who did not think it was a great thing to do to bad people.

We run big spreads on the piling of naked bodies of prisoners in the war on terror (pixilating their privates to cover our morality). We tell each other we are staring because it is so outrageous. Our leaders prosecute a few low-levels and call it a day.

But religious desecration? No probe, no punishment, no comment.


Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.
E-mail him at martin.schram(at)
Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service.

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