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May 18, 2005

Newsweek Editorial re: "retraction"

-- by Thomas Leavitt

In the May 23rd issue of Newsweek, Mark Whitaker has an editorial wherein he explains, in great detail, the basis upon which the magazine made its original report regarding desecration of the Qur'an at Gitmo. The magazine also devotes a feature length article to a detailed account of what "went wrong".

Here's an excerpt from the article, explaining what happened:

"On Saturday, Isikoff spoke to his original source, the senior government official, who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Qur'an, including a toilet incident [emphasis mine]. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report."

The editorial states that Newsweek ran the article past two other Defense Department officials, one of which declined to comment, the other of which did not challenge the specific allegation in question.

This is "aggressive" reporting - the magazine took a risk (limited number of sources, limited amount of background investigation) and got burned when their source failed to completely back up his or her original statement. The original report was made, based on the facts as they were known at the time - "facts" that turned out to be not so "factual", at a later point. The original decision to publish was probably less than wise, given the nature of the allegations and the current political environment, but not terribly unusual or irresponsible.

To be sure, there is a substantial difference, from a REPORTING perspective, between an anonymous government official saying they've seen unspecified reports documenting a problem, and the same official saying that he or she has seen the problem reported on in a specific document... these are two different stories; the former would be reported in a completely different fashion, with significant disclaimers as to the credibility of the report in question, than the latter (in fact, it might not even be reported at all, without a specific document to attach the allegation to).

But from our perspective as citizens in a democracy (and that of followers of Islam), the specific report in which this information is embedded matters little - much more important is the fact that reports are circulating within our government which state that the problem (desecration of the Qur'an by government personell) is real. Newsweek, and the anonymous official in question, have not retracted the claim that such reports exist.

There is a value in "aggressive" reporting like this, reporting that takes risks - often, it is the only way to get important information into the hands of the public that would otherwise never be heard.

Here's a personal story for you, illustrating just that point, out of the days of my youth (this was about 1989, give or take a year):

I was taking the bus home from an event, and never having taken the route in question before, wound up getting off quite a bit sooner than I should have. Miles and miles away from home, in fact. So there I am, standing at a bus stop in West Los Angeles in the late afternoon, when this guy in a sports car pulls up to me and says, "Hey! Do you need a ride?"

Being young, male, and naive, I said, "Sure." The guy in question started talking my ear off as soon as I got in the car... said he'd just closed a major deal, and had been celebrating with a couple of Long Island Iced Teas (it took me quite a while to realize that said drinks were alcoholic, and that the guy was drunk).

Somehow or other, the discussion turned to his experience as a Green Beret, piloting helicopters in Honduras. First he told me about the refugee camps in Honduras (whether the people in them came from Guatemala or Nicaragua, I'm not sure), about how they would crowd up against the fence whenever he and his buddies came near, and about how they felt sorry for the folks, so they'd toss them rations and other food items from their vehicles... which often resulted in fights as desperate individuals scrambled for the items in question. I was naive, so it surprised me that the U.S. was somehow overseeing refugee camps in Honduras.

Then he dropped a bomb on me, something that totally outraged me and blew my mind, something that clearly troubled this guy as well:

He'd spent most of his tour of duty flying helicopters in and out of El Salvador... carrying sealed orders that could not be opened until they were ten minutes over the border... sealed orders that directed the Green Berets he dropped off, inside El Salvador, to assassinate public officials in small villiages and towns that were thought to be sympathetic to the FSLN.

I was stunned, to say the least. This blew away anything else I'd ever heard about our activities in Central America, and I was familiar enough with the issues in question to realize that any such missions were highly highly illegal. If true, this was page one, top of the fold news. After I figured out the guy was drunk, I talked him into dropping me off at a convenience store somewhat closer to home, and wound up catching a bus the rest of the way.

The next day, I picked up the phone and called the Los Angeles Times, asking to be connected to whoever was responsible for covering events in Central America. The reporter I spoke to, and I remember his words almost exactly, said, "We've heard allegations of this sort from far more credible sources than a drunken Green Beret. But no one is willing to go on the record, so we can't publish them."

This blew my mind even further... they knew, already, but hadn't published anything... what other stories were circulating among those in the know, I wondered (and still wonder), that we knew nothing about, and would never see the light of day, simply because they didn't rise to the standard of journalism required by a major newspaper (or other media organization)?

Is the story my drunken Green Beret told me true? Seems likely (at least to me, based on what I heard). Will the public ever know for sure? Probably not.

Where do we draw the line, as a democracy, between "aggressive" and "irresponsible" reporting? How far back is the line being redrawn in the minds of reporters and editors as a result of the condemnation heaped upon CBS and Newsweek? What stories are we not going to hear about as a result?

Back to the story at hand, which raises the following questions in my mind:

a) did someone in the administration get to the source in question?

b) what DOES the SouthCom report actually say... has anyone in the media (or Congress) seen a draft (one composed and printed prior to these events)?

c) what OTHER reports might the individual in question have seen that raise these concerns? are we ever going to see them (in whatever form they existed prior to the controversy)?

Posted by Thomas Leavitt at May 18, 2005 6:35 PM

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