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Published: Saturday, 5/21/2005

Lessons in journalism

ON MAY 1, Newsweek published a story alleging interrogators at Guantanamo Bay flushed a Qur an down a toilet. The report sparked rioting that to date has resulted in 16 deaths and more than 100 injuries.

The story was false, as Newsweek has acknowledged. But, said Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker, it s all the Pentagon s fault.

Reporter Michael Isikoff got a tip from a source he did not identify.

The story was run past a senior Pentagon official who the magazine also doesn t identify. The official didn t knock it down, because, as Mr. Whitaker admits, he lacked detailed knowledge.

The Pentagon began an investigation which included examination of 25,000 documents. But Newsweek published its story before the investigation was concluded.

Newsweek ought not to have published such an incendiary item without giving the Pentagon time to check it out. That Newsweek s editors failed to appreciate the explosiveness of the allegation speaks as poorly of their judgment as Newsweek s reliance on a single, uncorroborated, anonymous source speaks poorly of their ethics.

Mr. Isikoff reportedly offered to resign last weekend. His offer was refused. It shouldn t have been.

Mr. Isikoff s lapse was a less serious breach of journalism ethics than the offenses for which Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Jack Kelley and Tom Squitieri of USA Today, Eric Slater of the Los Angeles Times, and Diana Griego Erwin of the Sacramento Bee were canned.

But Mr. Blair et al didn t get anyone killed, endanger the lives of U.S. servicemen, or deliver a severe setback to U.S. foreign policy.

Mr. Isikoff has shown remorse. Not so his equally complicit bosses.

If Newsweek had apologized fully once it was clear the story was false, the harm it did might have been mitigated. But Mr. Whitaker retracted the story while insisting no one at the magazine had done anything wrong. This smacks more of Richard Nixon s modified limited hangout than of genuine contrition.

Assistant Managing Editor Evan Thomas was worse. Mr. Thomas has to know now how explosive charges of Qur an abuse can be.

But in the current issue, Mr. Thomas repeated unsubstantiated allegations from al-Qaeda prisoners, without mentioning that an al-Qaeda training manual urges operatives, if captured, to make such false accusations. Mr. Thomas is throwing gasoline on the fire Mr. Isikoff started.

Other journalists have expressed more anger at the White House for insisting Newsweek help clean up the mess it made, than at Newsweek, for once again calling into question the accuracy and fairness of the news media. Those so quick to demand accountability from others should accept it for themselves.

Newsweek shouldn t have published the item even if it were true, because as we have seen the damage done far outweighs any benefit the public would receive from learning of it.

During World War II, there were hundreds of incidents in which American soldiers raped, murdered, or stole from civilians.

Journalists then did not publicize these incidents because they did not want to hand a propaganda windfall to Axis Sally or Tokyo Rose.

Journalists today should be as wary of handing propaganda victories to the Islamofascists.

But many journalists besmirch American soldiers on the flimsiest of evidence. We saw this in the mammoth coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison incident, and in the incident in which the car containing the released hostage Giuliana Sgrena was fired on when it failed to stop at a checkpoint. The Los Angeles Times deleted from a Reuters wire story it published the fact that satellite imagery proved the car was speeding, as our soldiers said and Ms. Sgrena denied.

On a PBS program in 1987, Charles Ogletree asked Mike Wallace of CBS and Peter Jennings of ABC if they d allow American troops to be killed in order to get a story. Both Mr. Wallace and Mr. Jennings said yes.

This seems to be the spirit that s alive at Newsweek, with the added caveat that it doesn t matter very much if the story is true, said law professor and web logger Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit). And with this kind of pattern established, journalists shouldn t be surprised that so many Americans are questioning their patriotism to the extent they feel there s any question left.



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