The ‘Newsweek’ Scandal: Harm and Hypocrisy

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By: Greg Mitchell

There’s nothing funny about riots and torture, but it’s not hard to find the dark humor in certain aspects of the uproar over Newsweek’s regrettable Koran-flushing item. Only one of the comedic highlights was White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan lecturing the media on Monday about losing ?credibility,? given the administration’s track record on WMDs in Iraq and other critical issues.

Just last week, McClellan suggested to the same reporters that President Bush had been informed about the D.C. evacuation scare, only to admit later that the president had been out of the loop. And who can forget: This is the man who brought us Mr. Credibility himself, Jim Guckert, a.k.a. Jeff Gannon.

Even more ironic, this is an administration that helped sell a war on intelligence often based (as in Newsweek’s case) on a single source. Remember ?Curveball?? The mobile biological labs? Now McClellan reminds the media about standards that ?should be met? before running a story.

Reporters at today’s press briefing pressed McClellan on why he now denounces the idea of articles based on a single source when he routinely demands that they rely on just that in White House backgrounders. Or as one put it, “it sounds like you’re saying your single anonymous sources are okay and everyone else’s aren’t. “

Now, this is not to say that Newsweek did not do harm, and relying on a single source’s say-so was (as per usual) stupid. The magazine got wrong that the specific report in question contained a reference to the guards flushing a Koran. E&P has been as tough on breaches of journalism ethics as anyone; witness our reporting on Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, even Mitch Albom. And we dutifully highlight the various surveys that arrive (one just yesterday) showing public doubts about those ethics.

But, really, you almost have to laugh when administration officials get all huffy about the U.S. losing respect in the Muslim world — and the fact that ?people have lost lives? — because of the nugget in Newsweek, when this follows Abu Ghraib, the confirmed deaths of dozens of prisoners in U.S. custody, the outsourcing of torture to Egypt and other countries, not to mention the killing of tens of thousands in Iraq in a war largely based on bogus tips from unreliable sources.

If only the White House could retract the war. Apparently most Americans wish they could, as the latest Gallup poll found that 57% feel the war is “not worth it.”

Here’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comment on the Newsweek affair: “People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful about what they do.” Common decency requires me to say nothing here about the lack of armor for our troops in Iraq, among other subjects.

As others have pointed out, Newsweek may have gotten this one reference wrong, but plenty of other cases of abuse-of-Koran (not to mention prisoners) have long been recorded. Conservative-friendly blogger Andrew Sullivan noted this week, ?One thing worth reiterating: the notion that this obscenity simply couldn’t have happened in the U.S. military (something I believed two years ago) is no longer an operative assumption. We know that incidents like this have happened. And even now, the administration is not denying it outright.?

Sullivan also observed: “I think it’s telling that some bloggers have devoted much, much more energy to covering the Newsweek error than they ever have to covering any sliver of the widespread evidence of detainee abuse that made the Newsweek piece credible in the first place.”

The Newsweek scandal will be interesting to watch, as the magazine’s editor shows signs of digging in his heels following his mea culpa. Subtexts to keep an eye on:

— Why did the Pentagon, given more than a week to respond after the fateful item was published, fail to raise an objection? Likely they knew it followed a pattern and was therefore (to borrow McClellan’s word) ?credible.? But it also follows the path we saw in the Dan Rather ?memogate? scandal last fall, when the White House did not at first find fault with the key documents.

— Why did Gen. Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tell reporters that the deadly rioting in Afghanistan was related more to the political conflict there than the Newsweek item, and why have his views on this matter dropped from sight?

— Isn’t the reporter most at fault in the Newsweek mess, Michael Isikoff, now charged with anti-Republican bias, the same fellow hailed by many on the right for his work in the Lewinsky scandal?

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