Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Newsweek Koran story is not another Memogate

Forgive me for a moment as I add yet more to the over-saturated Newsweek story. I’ve never particularly cared for Isikoff or for Newsweek, and I can’t remember the last time I actually paid for the magazine, though I’d guess it’s been over a decade. It’s always seemed to me a glossy, professional, well-researched left-of-center publication pretending to be objective with often-ridiculous eye-rolling covers (like the soldier in Iraq asking his sarge what plan B was some months ago). But, whatever my distaste for the magazine is, the Koran flushing story was no Memogate. It was certainly the result of flimsy research, anti-military bias, the search to break a story and create interest in the publication and a teaspoon of deceit (citing “sources” instead of a single anonymous source). And I was annoyed with Isikoff’s initial response, which basically said nothing except that Newsweek was investigating it – but, to his credit, he quickly offered his resignation to the magazine. That was a noble act and I think Newsweek was right to deny his resignation. And Newsweek has since retracted the story. While it would be nice for the publication to take further efforts to repair the damage, they’ve already shown themselves to be more responsible than CBS – which chose the path of obfuscation and deceit. Regardless of whether the Memogate story was intentionally untruthful or just an honest mistake (I tend to believe the former) the real embarrassment was how CBS covered it up and tried to stick by it weeks after it was known to be false. I almost hurt myself slapping my forehead when Dan Rather said – after everyone knew about the scandal – that he wanted to be the one to break that story. To this day he believes in the authenticity of the memos. Newsweek’s credibility will rightly take a hit, but their response has been far better (even if still lacking) than the egregious response of CBS.

Also, I don't think the lesson should have much to do with the accuracy of the story or the use of anonymous sources. While it's a good idea to describe the nature of a source (is it a single source, is it reliable or just part of the rumor mill - all of that is fit for print with the proper disclaimers), the troubling thing for me is that Isikoff chose to cite details of the flushing at all. Even if the story was true, why report it? What good will it do? How is it newsworthy? If the aim is to simply chisel away at the military's creditbility and make its job a harder, then that is clear enough. If the aim is to inform the public that an investigation or report on alleged abuses is in process or due to release, why mention specifics about treatment to the Koran? Especially when there's an online terror manual floating around which says point blank that such information is to be exploited? I certainly don't feel that I have a better understanding of the situation with petty details like that.

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