Recently those who don’t like the American press have really had a dandy excuse to criticize it. Now they are blasting Newsweek magazine, which admitted that in its May 9 edition it had made a mistake saying there were reporting that American guards in a detention center in Guantanamo Bay flushed a sacred book of Islam in a toilet to try to make Muslim prisoners talk.
This apparently led to riots in Afghanistan where 17 people died. The Bush Administration, which hates the press, demanded that the magazine do more than apologize, although no one has really figured out what this might be. Someone in the government who would not be quoted gave the story to two of Newsweek’s most experienced reporters, but the reporters couldn’t find a second informer to confirm the story, a method regularly followed by most reporters.
But because the writers believed the informer, the magazine editor decided to use the information anyway, and it appeared in one sentence in a 303-word story in what is sort of its hearsay section called Periscope. (All weekly news magazines have such sections.) Had the writers had a second confirmation, the story might have been on the cover.
Well, someone showed this little story to some of the maniacs who have led the killing of 1,600 American soldiers and they talked up the riots in order to recruit more of those frantic suicide murderers.
Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, was tough toward Newsweek, damn-ing the idea of anonymous sources. Some members of Congress went so far as to insist that there ought to be a law that sources of stories should always be told. This is ridiculous, of course, because anyone who knows anything about journalism is aware that reporters often have to agree not to identify their sources. In fact, the people in the White House often give out news only with the promise that their names won’t appear. Remember that we wouldn’t have known the truth about Watergate or the Vietnam war if reporters hadn’t had sources who knew the truth but couldn’t be identified.
It’s hardly proper for the White House to criticize Newsweek’s story when American generals and even the secretary of defense have sometimes encouraged tough treatment of the Iraqi prisoners. Transcripts, court records and government documents have revealed that the sacred Muslim book has been degraded not only by American guards in Guantanamo, but in Afghanistan and other places. Los Angeles Times reporters have read the documents and tell us that the holy books have been urinated on, kicked across cell floors, thrown into trash barrels and licked by dogs in efforts to get prisoners to talk.
The action of these guards is shameful, but not many of us shed tears when Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia complain. In any city in the United States, you can buy a copy of the Muslim holy book or read it in a library, but if you have a Bible in Saudi Arabia, you could get your head cut off.
I thought it was also shameful the way some newspapers jumped on Newsweek. One of the worst that I saw was an editorial in our daily newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is a fan of President Bush and has supported his war in Iraq at every step. The editorial said it was unethical for news stories to be written on the basis of sources that refused to be identified. This, of course, is the thought of an opinion writer rather than a reporter, the guy who works to tell the world what’s really going on and supplies editors with something to write about.
The newspaper’s editorial described Newsweek’s editor, Mark Whitaker, as “a flack for the Pentagon or maybe some U.S. senator trying to worm his way out of responsibility.” It went on to say that the only reason Newsweek even wrote the story was to get more readers because it was losing them to “blogs, webzines, e-mail and 24/7 cable news channels, not to mention that dinosaur, your daily newspaper.”
In the last paragraph, the editorial said that it was doubtful that Newsweek would stay in business. Well, Newsweek has been around since 1933. It’s owned by the Washington Post, which many people say is the finest daily newspaper in the nation. Every week 4 million people buy the magazine, whereas, for the information of the Democrat-Gazette editorial writer, 300 daily newspapers have gone out of business in the last 10 years.
I like what was written by David Brooks of the New York Times, one of the best conservative columnists in the nation: “We’re in the middle of an ideological war against people who want to destroy us and what have the most powerful people on earth become? Whining media bashers.”