Published on Friday, May 27, 2005 by the Baltimore Sun
Quran Abuse Allegations: True or False?
by Jules Witcover
The alleged Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay is a story that refuses to die. Newly released FBI interviews with detainees in 2002 and 2003 include more accusations of such abuse, obliging the Pentagon to insist again that the charges are unsubstantiated. |
Newsweek, which deservedly took its lumps for relying on a single anonymous source in reporting mistakenly that the Quran-in-the-toilet allegation had been confirmed by a Pentagon official, is saying nothing.
But the FBI files, shaken loose by the American Civil Liberties Union, suggest that the White House may have been premature in castigating the news magazine over its item, speedily retracted when its source backed off.
Regardless, the White House intimation that the Newsweek story caused great loss of life by triggering street violence takes the prize for sheer chutzpah. It comes from an administration that started a war in Iraq based on weapons of mass destruction that weren't there.
With the American death toll there approaching 1,700, nearly 13,000 more wounded and many more thousands of Iraqis dead, the Bush White House is in a very weak position to call on Newsweek to be more responsible in reporting on detainee charges, the war and its deplorable ramifications.
Newsweek, responding to the bad publicity, has revised its policy of relying on using single anonymous sources. The publication will permit them only when approved by senior editors, with a stronger effort to let readers know why each time the practice is allowed.
Not only did the phrase "sources said" incorrectly suggest there was more than one informant, but the word "source" doesn't give the reader any inkling about whether the individual is reliable.
But the White House, in warning a news organization, sends a chilling message that smacks of gratuitous intimidation of the American news media as a whole.
In sending it, the administration obviously seeks to undermine the credibility of all of the news media while continuing its policy of limiting access to information about U.S. casualties and what has been going on in U.S.-run detention camps.
When an American news organization makes a mistake, it does more than compromise its believability with its readership or audience. Poor, sloppy or careless journalistic performance can convey a much broader impression of malpractice by the news media as a whole, justified or not.
With a heavy helping hand from this administration, readers can be convinced that a story that errs on how it was obtained automatically disproves the allegation itself.
White House strategists certainly realize this. They have not hesitated, when a reporting mistake is made, to seize on it to further undermine public confidence in a news business that reports plenty of information not to officialdom's liking.
That clearly was true when CBS News clung to the 2000 campaign hoax that professed to prove President Bush had failed to fulfill his Air National Guard duties during the Vietnam War. When that hoax was disclosed, the White House used it to effectively obliterate the allegations against him.
Now, with the FBI files showing other Guantanamo detainees had made accusations of Quran abuse similar to Newsweek's as early as three years ago, that story suddenly has new legs, in news-business parlance.
In the face of the overwrought White House criticism of the magazine's unwitting miscue, the obligation remains for Newsweek and its news-gathering brethren to keep digging on the Quran abuse allegations and accurately report their findings.
Jules Witcover writes from The Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau.
© 2005 Baltimore Sun