Seventeen people are dead tonight. One apparent cause of death: sloppy and inaccurate journalism.
As I write this post, still very little is known as of yet, but Newsweek is retracting a report that a Pentagon inquiry had determined that interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba desecrated the Koran. The Newsweek report, by reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry, although principally reported by Isikoff, also claimed that an interrogator flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet in attempting to get one terror suspect to talk. Newsweek is now reporting that the story might not have any truth to it.
In the meantime, 17 people have died in Afghanistan, after riots broke out provoked by the Newsweek account. Newsweek's editor Mark Whitaker has posted this editor's note online about the erroneous report:
"Although other major news organizations had aired charges of Qur'an desecration based only on the testimony of the detainees, we believed our story was newsworthy because a U.S. official said government investigators turned up this evidence. So we published the item. After several days, newspapers in Pakistan and Afghanistan began running accounts of our story. At that point, as Even Thomas, Ron Moreau, and Sam Yousafzai report this week, the riots started and spread across the country, fanned by extremists and unhappiness over the economy."
"Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur'an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them 'not credible.' Our original source later said he couldn't be certain about reading of the alleged Qur'an incident in the report we cited, and said it might have been in other investigative documents or drafts. Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of the our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in the midst." [emphasis added.]
Some comments: The source for Newsweek's story hardly seems credible at this point. Whitaker's statement now quoting his magazine's anonymous source as saying that allegations of Koran desecration "might have been in other investigative documents or drafts" than the specific one reported by the magazine is pure speculation. Both the anonymous source and Newsweek are recklessly only continuing to fan the flames.
The magazine should obviously continue to report the story, and if it turns out that there indeed are other credible allegations of Koran desecration in some other secret government document, it would seem the magazine has got an incredible scoop. If the Pentagon and White House have lied about this, the credibility of the Bush administration would stand little chance to recover-- and rightfully-- coming on the heels of no WMD found in Iraq. And it is also more than reasonable that the magazine and its source want to vindicate themselves, but they won't achieve that by continuing in reckless public speculation as to what might or might not be true.
The predominant journalistic culture now apparently is that it does not matter anymore whether what journalists report is accurate or not. One hopes-- although they would be naive to do so-- that this particular incident would be the one that would lead to higher journalistic standards. (After all, nobody died because of Jayson Blair.)
But don't count on it. Wonkette will soon be holding forth once again on Charlie Rose as to why it doesn't matter if any of the gossip she reports on her website is true or not. The Drudge Report will print the latest unsubstantiated gossip on whichever public figure, as he is wont to do.
Isikoff, the principal author of the Newsweek story in question, is also hardly your traditional "investigative journalist." He is perhaps best known for his zealous pursuit of Bill Clinton's sexual escapades. In that pursuit, he certainly had done as much harm to himself and his profession than the President whom he was pursuing. Former New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis persuasively argued in the New York Review of Books that Isikoff was more a participant in the events to bring down Clinton than an objective observer. Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and the author of a book about the Clinton impeachment crisis, "A Vast Conspiracy" had this to say of Isikoff in the New York Review of Books: "Isikoff appears to recognize that we are moving toward a first historical consensus about the meaning of these tumultuous events: that Clinton's impeachment, and the events leading to it, amounted to a constituional and cultural disgrace for this country... In light of this, Isikoff seeks... to portray himself as a `level-headed observer' who was merely acting out of `good faith' and for a `legitimate professional purpose.' But try as he might to pretend that he only had a seat in the stands for this epochal contest, the truth is that Isikoff was down on the field-- performing, as it turns out, for the losing side." (In fairness to Isikoff, one can find posted here his response to both Lewis and Toobin in the New York Review.)
After Sept. 11, Isikoff, who had admitted to having been obsessed with green room appearances and presidents' personal lives for too long, swore that he, like so many other Washington journalists, would become more serious minded (as if an impeachment and trial of the President by the United States Senate were never really serious matters). But this latest episode raises doubt as to whether that has been the case.
Instead of earning his redemption, Isikoff's editor is offering on behalf of Newsweek to "extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."
Tonight, it is difficult to see the line between Wonkette and Drudge and Newsweek. If the line was once blurred, it feels at least as of this writing, to have all but disappeared.
Until now, all the erroneous reports and reckless rumor-mongering was always only done without any bad intentions! No innocents are ever hurt, and if they were, not too badly. Wonkette's Ana Marie Cox has said famously that anything she writes will only ruin someone's day, and not their life. Unfortunately, that is the new ethic for much of journalism.
In this case, the Afghan death toll stands at seventeen, and no story correction will ever do justice for the harm already done so many. (What can ruin someone's day can indeed ruin their life, perhaps even rob them of it entirely.) And the worse might still not be over. Protests against America have not only broken out in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but all throughout the Arab world including among other places, Yemen and the Gaza Strip. Also as a result, U.S. servicemen now already in harm's way stand in even greater harm's way.
Update, 10:49 P.M: Since my original posting, the Washington Post has posted a story online to appear tomorrow on its front page story about the Newsweek saga. A Pentagon spokesman, Bryan Whitman, is quoted in the newspaper as calling Newsweek's report "irresponsible" and "demonstrably false."
Whitman further said: ""Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those who were viciously attacked by those false allegations."
Addendum: Wonkette, in this post, actually had done a public service a while back, in naming Isikoff as one of Washington's journalists who has a cable television problem. No call by an MSNBC booker ever apparently went unreturned. Advice for young journalists: stay away from the green room and instead stay late at the office and double check the details of your stories with your sources.
A biography of Isikoff on Newsweek's web site has this to say: "Isikoff's exclusive reporting on the Monica Lewinsky scandal gained him national attention in late 1998, including profiles in the Washington Post and the New York Times and guest appearances on the `Late Show with David Letterman.'" I knew there was a reason that as a young man I aspired to be a journalist...