The biggest cost of Newsweek's blunder

It turns Gitmo into a circus-of-a-media story, rather than one about the long-term pattern of abuses inside the Bush administration's secretive system of military prisons used in the war against terrorism.

Published May 17, 2005 7:38PM (EDT)

First off, Newsweek screwed up, and screwed up big. But the day after the magazine's retraction of the Quran-abuse story, there is ample evidence of why its mistake is so costly -- because it turns Gitmo into a circus-of-a-media story, rather than one about the long-term pattern of abuses inside the Bush administration's secretive system of military prisons used in the war against terrorism. Newsweek's blunder hinges on Pentagon acknowledgement of Quran abuse at Gitmo, not whether it or other abuses have occurred. (See the above link for more.) Today, conservative bloggers are all piling on with the same woefully misguided (or just plain partisan) question: "How many other stories about torture at U.S. prisons have been bogus?"

Lexington Green of the Chicago Boyz blog, who insinuates that there's no Gitmo story behind Newsweek's Gitmo story, is case in point: "Republicans in Congress should open an investigation of Newsweek, to determine who leaked this, what the basis was for the leak, what the motive was for the leak. If there is some basis of truth in it, we should know that. If not, we should find out who is responsible for this, and if they are government employees who circulated a lie, they should be disciplined. An appropriate committee should subpoena Isikoff and his colleagues. Make them produce all emails, notes, correspondence, telephone records. We may well find that the motive for this was partisan damage to the President. That is what I would bet on."

Sure, you're quickly digressing into thoughts of Bob Novak here... but let's stay focused:

"We need to get to the bottom of this," Green continues. "The United States has just suffered a global strategic defeat akin to Abu Ghraib, and many people have lost their lives, and many more will in the future, probably all based on a complete lie."

Probably all based on a complete lie? Green needs to revisit his own comparison with Abu Ghraib in the previous part of that same sentence, and think about what went on there -- and why else there might be flashpoints for anti-American violence in the Muslim world today. (Even if a major media screw-up is what sets one off.)

While the righty bloggers lick their chops in anticipation of another CBS-like meal, the mainstream media is apparently having its own tortured time of getting around to the core issue of abuses inside Gitmo. Focusing on poor "journalistic standards," White House spokesman Scott McClellan yesterday emphasized blame on Newsweek (rather than U.S. policies) for fueling anti-Americanism abroad; the New York Times seemed to go along with that official line today, reporting that Newsweek's retraction "reflected the severity of consequences that even one sentence in a brief news article can have at a time of intense anti-American sentiment overseas and political polarization, as well as extreme distrust of the mainstream media at home." (Later in the piece the Times did get around to the heap of allegations -- including from former U.S. interrogators themselves, as well as the FBI -- that led to the Newsweek story in the first place.)

The use (and abuse) of anonymous sources is a worthy sidebar; today's Wall Street Journal focuses a big feature there: "The Newsweek episode is only the latest in a series of high-profile editorial mishaps in recent years that have shaken the public's confidence in the news business. Reporters Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today lost their jobs -- and cost some editors theirs as well -- in fabrication scandals. Their made-up anecdotes in some cases were attributed to anonymous sources. The '60 Minutes' segment about President Bush's National Guard duty blew up in part because the main, anonymous source misled CBS News."

Unsurprisingly, the New York Post -- under the tasteful banner of "Holy Shiite: Newsweek retracts its deadly toilet tale" -- flushes the magazine itself down the toilet.

"What actually happened at Guantanamo Bay is still unclear," adds the Journal's piece at one point.

The paper is spot on there. So, too, would be Green's call for a congressional investigation -- if it were for one digging into what's gone on behind the walls of Gitmo in the last three years.

Three months ago, Congress did make a bit of noise about looking into mounting evidence that the U.S. has been outsourcing torture of detainees to foreign "allies." We're still awaiting the results.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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