Newsweek lied, people died. At least that has seemed to be the shorthand adopted by many news organizations in the aftermath of Newsweek's retracted item about alleged abuses at Gitmo. Cable news pundits have gone apoplectic over what they see as the latest in a long line of media indiscretions, even while it remains unclear how responsible Newsweek was for the violent protests. Media war... or culture war? Brooke weighs in.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Good evening. It was an item in Newsweek magazine, two weeks ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, the news media, especially on cable, buzzed with the story of a runaway story. It quoted an anonymous Pentagon source who said that an incident of Koran desecration at Guantanamo would appear in an upcoming official report. Before publication, the item was put before another Pentagon source for a quick check, who offered no comment on the Koran part. Newsweek ran the item. Peaceful protests turned to riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and people died. The original source retracted. Soon after, so did Newsweek.
MARK WHITAKER: We feel terrible about the violence and the role that, that Newsweek’s reporting has played in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The story about the story offers some real insight into the pitfalls of some standard journalistic practice. The risks in relying on a single anonymous source; the imprecision that can lead a reporter to mistake silence for confirmation; the competitive reflex that rushes to print a story about something in an upcoming report that may well prove not to be there. But the complicated story was simplified in the coverage, reduced to just another sally in the culture war. White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: This report has had very serious consequences. People have lost their lives. And the image of the United States abroad has been damaged by this report.
ON AIR CORRESPONDENT: Plus, America's reputation flushed down the toilet. What's Newsweek doing to fix this mess?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did Newsweek flush America's reputation down the toilet? Did Newsweek kill people? On the latter, the government can't quite agree. The White House says yes; the Pentagon, or at least General Richard Myers, says signs point to no.
RICHARD MYERS: It's a judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eikenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran...but more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President Karzai and his cabinet is conducting in Afghanistan. He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the end, of course, this was not an argument over the truth of a news story, or even the impact of a news story. It was a proxy argument about the news media. Sean Hannity.
SEAN HANNITY: I think, in an effort to get the president and hurt the Republicans, I think they were just all too giddy to find the next Abu Ghraib story, which is, which is part of a, a problem we have, an ongoing problem with the liberal media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Abu Ghraib happened. There are many reports from former detainees of Koran desecration at Guantanamo. Some are under investigation. At least one case, according to a story in the New York Times, citing both a former detainee by name and a former interrogator anonymously, said a senior officer delivered an apology over the camp’s loudspeaker, vowing to stop such abuses. Carl Cameron of Fox News.
CARL CAMERON: Some compare Newsweek’s error to the CBS 60 Minutes scandal over Dan Rather’s use of evidently forged documents that criticized the president’s military record.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Actually, it’s a useful comparison. The president’s spotty National Guard service record, solidly sourced in other news reports, was effectively buried under the scandal of Rather’s forged documents. Reporters make mistakes. They should be held accountable, just as they hold others to account. But allowing errors of judgment to obscure or obstruct the job of journalists is currently the game of choice, and it’s a dangerous game. This week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, echoing Press Secretary Ari Fleischer’s warning in 2001, said people – meaning reporters – need to be very careful about what they say. Pat Buchanan went further, suggesting that reporters pack up their notebooks and go home till the war is over.
PAT BUCHANAN: I don't care if the item was true or false. It doesn't make any different. You don't do something like this which damages a cause for which your countrymen are dying and puts at risk the boys and men we send over there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Washington Post’s veteran editor Ben Bradlee once observed that all governments lie. Reporters famously screw up. But that can't deter them from telling the truth when they can, the best they can. Like soldiers and governments, they are far from perfect, but like soldiers and governments, we need them, especially – that’s right, Buchanan – especially in time of war.
BOB GARFIELD: It's still not clear what role exactly the Newsweek story played in the mobilization of the violent protests. What is very clear, if it wasn't before, is that news outlets in the United States can no longer expect that their products will be consumed in other parts of the world the same way they're consumed here at home. (Quote) “Things turned out horribly,” Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff said this week, referring to the violent protests, “but it was unforeseen,” he said. “A very strange set of circumstances led to a very horrible chain of events.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could he have foreseen it? With satellite TV blanketing regions once monopolized by state-controlled media, and internet cafes cropping up in Kabul, with street protesters recording clashes on camera phones and soldier-bloggers sending dispatches round the world, media production is rapidly falling into the hands of media consumers, who in turn re-fashion the news to suit themselves. Reporters can't control how others use their work, and governments can't control the media flowing across borders. At the moment, no one is directing traffic on the information superhighway. This week, we’ll focus on media convergence and confusion, as our contribution to "Think Global," a week-long series of public radio programming on the theme of globalization.