The Newsweek Riots – Update

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Austin Bay has written one of the best blogs yet on the Newsweek scandal:

History may see Newsweek?s fatal ?Koran flushing? story as the US press? Abu Ghraib.

Under any circumstances, Newsweek?s flagrant, tragic error is an error a long-time-coming. The magazine?s ?apology? doesn?t begin to account for the damage. [The apology appears at the end of this post. Call the mea culpa ?News Weak.”]

Several other websites have covered the issue of anonymous and ?single sourced? allegations. (See Powerline?s take here and here. Roger L. Simon says there?s no business like source business. Michelle Malkin covers the story with ?Newsweek Lied, People Died.?)

The sin of greed always seems to creep into every scandal and it?s certainly lurking in this tragic incident. Newsweek wants market share, and a scoop grabs readers. But profit generated by a frantic ?me first? quest isn?t the only motive. The ?Vietnam-Watergate? motive?s also in play. That?s a tired and dirty game but for three decades it?s been a successful ploy for the New York-Washington-LA media axis. It?s rules are simple. Presume the government is lying? always make that presumption, particularly when the president is a Republican. Presume the worst about the US military? always make that presumption, even when the president is a Democrat. Add multi-cultural icing? the complaints and allegations of ?Third World victims? are given revered status, the statements of US and US-allied nations met with cynical doubt and arrogant contempt. (Yes, the myth of the Noble Savage re-cast.)

But why might this be the press? Abu Ghraib? Here?s the connection: globe-girdling technology has once again amplified foolish behavior, lack of professionalism, and disregard for consequences into a tragedy. Consider Abu Ghraib, without the fevered hyperbole of The Nation or The Guardian. The behavior of US troops at the prison was inexcusable ?frat rat hazing, trailer trash porn, street punk threat taken up ten quanta to felony prisoner abuse. But dump the hyperbole and call Abu Ghraib what it was: rank felony abuse, not deadly torture. The global dissemination of Lynndie England?s dog leash photos, etc., (and magnification of the abuse by anti-American critics) made Abu Ghraib the political and historical scar it is. The US soldiers committed a crime, but information technology made the crime an international fiasco. When evaluating early investigations into Abu Ghraib Don Rumsfeld and his cohort of advisers ?techno whizzes that they supposedly are? were operating with a 1970s information template.To Don Rumsfeld ?pictures? meant a snapshot on a piece of paper marked ?Kodak”? he didn?t realize his 20-year-old troops take photos with electronic cameras and ?print? them in digital pixels. Anyone with teenagers or a ten year-old with a photo-cell phone knows your navel can be an international sensation in two minutes.

To a degree Newsweek is operating on a ?paper template? where the editors and reporters believe the story they ?print? shows up in mailboxes or on a magazine rack. In this ?template? a phony press allegation remains ?local? or US-bound. But there is no ?over there? in our world, not anymore. We live in a world where everyone is ? in terms of information? next door. Technological compression is the term I coined to describe the situation. Some slip-ups merely damage reputations? Dan Rather and Eason Jordan come to mind. World War Two vets know ?loose lips sink ships.? Today, loose (computer) disks can sink ships, but loosey-goosey allegations can lead to riot and death.

Here?s a quote from a column that ran in January 2005:

Technological compression is a fact of 21st century existence ? and it is the superglue now bonding American foreign policy idealism (promoting democracy) and foreign policy pragmatism (survival via realpolitik).

An article of mine in The Weekly Standard?s Jan. 3, 2005, issue frames it this way: ?Technology has compressed the planet, with positive effects in communication, trade and transportation; with horrifyingly negative effects in weaponry. Decades ago, radio, phone cables on the seabed, long-range aircraft and then nuclear weapons shrunk the oceans. Sept. 11 demonstrated that religious killers could turn domestic jumbo jets into strategic bombers ? and the oceans were no obstacles. ?Technological compression? is a fact; it cannot be reversed. To deny it or ignore it has deadly consequences.?

Translation: There is no ?over there.? Everybody lives next door. All local gossip can become international rumor in an instant. With weapons of mass destruction in the mix ? particularly if biological or nuclear weapons are employed ? a tribal war in Saudi Arabia or a border firefight in Asia can rapidly escalate to global disaster.

Newsweek?s ?local gossip? has led to deadly riots? and another huge crack in the NY-DC-LA media axis.

For background here?s the Washington Post?s story.

The Post report also summarizes the incident:

Newsweek magazine has apologized for errors in a story alleging that interrogators at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran, saying it would re-examine the accusations, which sparked outrage and deadly protests in Afghanistan.

Fifteen people died and scores were injured in violence between protesters and security forces, prompting U.S. promises to investigate the allegations.

Pakistani lawmaker and the chief of a coalition of radical Islamic groups, Qazi Hussain Ahmed gestures during a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, May 15, 2005. Islamic groups in Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia, Britain and Turkey will hold rallies later this month in coordinated international protests against the alleged desecration of Islam?s holy book Quran at the United States prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Ahmed said. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed) (Anjum Naveed – AP)
?We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst,? Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker wrote in a note to readers.

In an issue dated May 9, the magazine reported that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that interrogators placed copies of Islam?s holy book in washrooms and had flushed one down the toilet to get inmates to talk.

Whitaker wrote that the magazine?s information came from ?a knowledgeable U.S. government source,? and before publishing the item, writers Michael Isikoff and John Barry sought comment from two Defense Department officials. One declined to respond, and the other challenged another part of the story but did not dispute the Quran charge, Whitaker said.

But on Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told the magazine that a review of the military?s investigation concluded ?it was never meant to look into charges of Quran desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them ?not credible.??

Also, Whitaker added, the magazine?s original source later said he could not be sure he read about the alleged Quran incident in the report Newsweek cited, and that it might have been in another document.

Here?s The Arab News (Saudi) demanding a US apology? an apology for a religious sacrilege that didn?t occur:

JEDDAH, 16 May 2005 ? The 150-member Shoura Council yesterday strongly condemned the reported desecration of the Holy Qur?an at the hands of US officials at Guantanamo Bay and asked the United States, if the incident was true, to apologize in order to avoid hatred and violence.

The Shoura urged the US authorities to launch a prompt investigation into a May 9 Newsweek magazine report that investigators probing abuses at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay found that interrogators had desecrated the Qur?an to rattle Muslim prisoners.

?If the report proved true, it would become important that an apology be issued and addressed to Muslims all over the world to avoid increasing the hatred between nations and followers of religious faiths as well,? the Shoura said in a statement.

The Shoura said it considered the incident an attack on Muslims all over the world. ?The council considers it as an attack on the feelings of Muslims and their sanctity? and a violation of international law and human customs,? said the statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency?

The Arab News adds this:

In Afghanistan, a group of clerics threatened to call for a holy war against the United States in three days unless it handed over military interrogators who are reported to have desecrated the Qur?an.

The warning came after 16 Afghans were killed and more than 100 hurt last week in the worst anti-US protests across the country since US forces invaded in 2001 to oust the Taliban for sheltering Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network.

The clerics in the northeastern province of Badakhshan said they wanted US President George W. Bush to handle the matter honestly ?and hand the culprits over to an Islamic country for punishment?.

The LA Times goes with an AP report:

Muslims in Afghanistan gave Washington three days to offer a response to a Newsweek story that claimed the Islamic holy book was desecrated at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, but the magazine apologized Sunday for the report, which prompted deadly riots across Afghanistan last week.

Reaction across the Islamic world has been strong, with daily demonstrations since the May 9 story came out. At least 15 people died in Afghanistan after protests broke out Tuesday following the report that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, placed Qurans in washrooms to unsettle suspects, and in one case ?flushed a holy book down the toilet.?

Many of the 520 inmates at Guantanamo are Muslims arrested during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, insults to the Quran and Islam?s prophet, Muhammad, are regarded as blasphemy and punishable by death.

?The American soldiers are known for disrespect to other religions. They do not take care of the sanctity of other religions,? Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the Pakistani chief of a coalition of radical Islamic groups, said Sunday.

Ahmed?s comments came a day after Pakistan?s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, both allies of Washington, demanded an investigation and punishment for those behind the reported desecration of the Quran.

In Afghanistan, Islamic scholars and tribal elders called for the punishment of anyone found to have abused the Quran, said Maulawi Abdul Wali Arshad, head of the religious affairs department in Badakhshan province.

Arshad and the provincial police chief said the scholars met in Faizabad, 310 miles northeast of the capital, Kabul, and demanded a ?reaction? from U.S. authorities within three days.

But Newsweek apologized in an editor?s note for Monday?s edition and said they were re-examining the allegations.

?We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst,? Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker wrote.

The London Times On-Line goes with a much stiffer headline, ?Incendiary Koran claim may be false, editor admits”? and the London Times backs it up with a tough story :

THE incendiary account of US interrogators flushing a copy of the Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay may not, after all, be true, the magazine behind the claim said.
The report in last week?s Newsweek sparked riots in Afghanistan that spread across the Muslim world, leading to the deaths of at least 14 people and injuries to more than 120.

In this week?s edition the magazine backtracks. ?We regret that we got any part of our story wrong and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the US soldiers caught in its midst,? Mark Whitaker, the Editor, wrote in an editorial.

The report last week said that the claims about the Koran, which previously had been aired by other news organizations, would be validated by an inquiry report into the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. It was based on conversations with a senior American official who said that he had seen mention of the Koran incident in the report.

However, on checking with the source since publication, Newsweek said that the official no longer could be sure that they had remembered correctly.

When told of Newsweek?s new stance, Lawrence DiRita, the Pentagon spokesman, raged: ?People are dead because of what this son of a bitch said.?

The Pentagon has been under mounting pressure to get to the bottom of the allegations as anti-American riots spread from Gaza to Kabul to Jakarta. The allegations also drew an official protest from Saudi Arabia, one of America?s most crucial allies in the Islamic world.

Yesterday, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt?s largest opposition organization, demanded that the US apologize, as did Islamic leaders in Bangladesh. In Beirut, Lebanon?s top Sunni Muslim cleric called for an international investigation.

The episode has threatened to give Washington its biggest headache overseas since the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, said that mistreatment of the Koran was ?abhorrent? to right-thinking Americans.

Despite Newsweek?s about-turn, the Pentagon has yet to state officially that no mistreatment of the Koran by interrogators took place at Guantanamo Bay, where the US has held 600 detainees in legal limbo for more than three years.

An absolute statement of ?no mistreatment of the Koran? would be tough to make. At this point something as simple as taking a Koran from an obstreperous prisoner might count as ?mistreatment.?

As for Newsweek?s mea culpa? As I said at the top of this post call it News Weak.

May 23 issue – Did a report in NEWSWEEK set off a wave of deadly anti-American riots in Afghanistan? That?s what numerous news accounts suggested last week as angry Afghans took to the streets to protest reports, linked to us, that U.S. interrogators had desecrated the Qur?an while interrogating Muslim terror suspects. We were as alarmed as anyone to hear of the violence, which left at least 15 Afghans dead and scores injured. But I think it?s important for the public to know exactly what we reported, why, and how subsequent events unfolded.

Two weeks ago, in our issue dated May 9, Michael Isikoff and John Barry reported in a brief item in our periscope section that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that American guards at the detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had committed infractions in trying to get terror suspects to talk, including in one case flushing a Qur?an down a toilet. Their information came from a knowledgeable U.S. government source, and before deciding whether to publish it we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur?an charge.

Although other major news organizations had aired charges of Qur?an desecration based only on the testimony of detainees, we believed our story was newsworthy because a U.S. official said government investigators turned up this evidence. So we published the item. After several days, newspapers in Pakistan and Afghan-istan began running accounts of our story. At that point, as Evan Thomas, Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai report this week, the riots started and spread across the country, fanned by extremists and unhappiness over the economy.

Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur?an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them ?not credible.? Our original source later said he couldn?t be certain about reading of the alleged Qur?an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.

?Mark Whitaker

UPDATE: Instapundit of course has several interesting posts and telling comments from readers. I am particularly struck by the email Instapundit publishes which disagrees that Newsweek?s mistake is the problem, rather people who riot over a news report are the problem. I?m going to quote it because the point is superb:

Newsweek isn?t the problem. The problem is that people will kill over a book being desecrated. Actually, over a anonymous report buried within a third rate weekly magazine. There is something wrong when people value a book, of which there are millions, over human lives. This is the real problem, and Newsweek isn?t the source of it. The problem is an ignorant and violent subculture within the islamic world, and the general lack of tolerance about religion therein.

Great point, but, the answer is ?yes and no? to that comment, folks. If we?re going to take rioting Afghanis to task then let?s take the same stick to Los Angeles and rioting Angelenos. We?ve had riots in the USA over racial epithets and allegations of police brutality? epithets and allegations magnified by a what-me-worry? press. Rodney King was treated cruelly and brutalized, but he was also a punk. The LA riots were a human chain reaction, with emotions going nuclear.

There?s a war going on, a global war, and Newsweek acts like it?s trying to ?Get Nixon.? (Heck, the Washington Post owns Newsweek, and the Post?s halcyon was Watergate.) The problem is not simply a reporter?s mistake but editorial ignorance of the global information grid.

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The Newsweek Riots

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