Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Newsweek Mess

The whole Newsweek affair is more complicated than most people give it credit for. On the right, people are saying that Newsweek should have known that the story would cause rioting and have held off until they were sure that the Koran was actually abused. On the left, people are defending Newsweek from having to do more than retract the story and, in some cases they are claiming a conspiracy on the part of the Bush administration. Let's look at each of these sides more closely.

First, the Daily Kos and others have pointed out that other stories about Koran abuse have run without causing riots. The stories that they cited are interesting. They refer to the Koran being thrown into a toilet or into a bucket serving as a toilet. It is possible to do either of these but it is not possible to flush a large book down a toilet unless you first tear out the pages, then tear them up. The version that Newsweek printed sounds very much like a second or third hand version that someone heard - possibly from the press. That would make it impossible to verify. Should Newsweek publish hearsay as hard news? No, of course not. The steps that they took to verify the story were insufficient. I will examine this part later.

So Newsweek has something to apologize for and the statements that they have publicly made are insufficient. They took the Dan Rather approach: "I'm sure that this happened but I cannot prove it."

Should Newsweek have known that this would cause riots? Probably not. Yes, in the mid-19th century the Sepoy Rebellion was triggered by unfounded rumors that the British were using animal fat in their gun cartridges in order to cause the native troops to break dietary restrictions and be forced to convert to Christianity. Yes, the Koran is the literal word of God, dictated in God's own language if Arabic and abusing a copy of the Koran is much worse than abusing a Bible.

On the other hand, this was not the first time that this story had been printed. It was not a major story, only a minor item.

Then there is the cultural issue. It is hard for a liberal to even imagine someone having strong religious beliefs let alone taking offence over them. Look at our own culture. In the past few years we have had artwork featuring a crucifix submerged under the artist's urine, a depiction of the Virgin Mary made partly from dung, and a flag draped across the exit to an exhibit so that everyone would walk across it. We also saw Arabs dancing in the street over the murder of 3,000 Americans. In the Arab world, insurgents have been using mosques as shelter for snipers in Iraq. None of that sparked a riot.

There is some evidence that the Taliban was planning a mass demonstration anyway and that this was the spark that they were waiting for. This happened to fit in with their message that America has declared war on all Moslems. That doesn't absolve Newsweek of blame for running an unprovable story. If the Taliban is going to riot, it would be nice if they at least rioted over provable events.

Moving over to the Left - how much was the Bush administration to blame? Did they allow the Koran to be treated disrespecfully? Yes, they did, but not recently. The military now has regulations on respecting the Koran. If a copy was thrown in a waste bucket, it probably happened a year and a half to tow years ago.

The bad reporting hurts the Bush response a great deal. If it had been a verified incident then someone could be punished. Since Newsweek cannot even confirm that it happened and will not name the source of the report, there is little the government can do to convince Moslems of our good intentions. That leaves it up to Newsweek which is clearly not up to the task.

Was Newsweek somehow set up? Keith Olbermann thinks it was all a plot. After all, Newsweek ran their story by a senior defense department official who refuted one point but did not challenge the Koran flushing.

Or would somebody rather play politics with this? The way Craig Crawford reconstructed it, this one went similarly to the way the Killian Memos story evolved at the White House. The news organization turns to the administration for a denial. The administration says nothing. The news organization runs the story. The administration jumps on the necks of the news organization with both feet — or has its proxies do it for them.

That’s beyond shameful. It’s treasonous.

Is there any truth to Albermann's accusations? In both cases a story was run past someone who, while part of the administration, had no direct knowledge of the event. And, in both cases, it was a rush story. The administration official was not told, "Take all the time you need to get to the bottom of it. We'll hold the story." No, he was told, "We're going with this story tomorrow unless you can say with certainty that this did not happen." The press is asking people to take responsibility for killing a story when they do not know all the facts. If the kill the story and it turns out to be true, they will be the ones hung out to dry. Either way the press is trying to absolve themselves of responsibility.

Olbermann would only have a case if someone in the administration had confirmed the story and it turned out false. Note that the part that the defense department official did kill was something he had direct knowledge of.

So Newsweek is still on the hook. They did not get confirmation of the story.

The left is also trying to make a point about the right's treatment of the reporter, Michael Isikoff. Olbermann says that the right "owes him" for his coverage of Linda Tripp during the Clinton scandals.

No, it doesn't. Isenkoff is part of the advesarial press. He tries to put the President in a bad light. As soon as a Democrat is elected, he will turn on them again.

Another point - an early press briefing on the rioting said that the Newsweek article was not to blame. Later, after protestors were seen with copies of Newsweek and carrying signs about abuse of the Koran the White House reversed itself. This does not prove a plot. It proves that the White House is willing to revise statements as more information becomes available.

So the left is trying to work up a faux rage. Had Newsweek nailed down the story, the left would have a point. In the light of Newsweek's shoddy reporting, they don't.

One last point - we are so busy trying to court Moslems that we have not criticized them for rioting over virtually nothing. Are article here points out that the riots would have happened anyway although I think that they might have been more subdued. This article points out how difficult it is to conduct a war without offending someone.
Today, globoback -- specifically, all those pesky reporters and NGO's, and their cameras, and also, of course, the cameras of American soldiers as well -- prevents Uncle Sam from using the sorts of tactics that worked in the past to subdue enemy populations. One can only guess at the number of Americans who have died in Iraq because we can't or won't use overwhelming force to break the enemy's capacity and resolve.
Like I said, it's complicated.

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