Last week, as the Muslim world boiled over with deadly rage, the conservative spin machine, aided and abetted by an easily exploitable press, once again captured the story, distorted the message, and mislead America. In their version of the truth, it’s all Newsweek’s fault.
Allowing the White House spin machine and the accompanying chorus of right-wing echo chambers to portray the Newsweek story as "the cause" of those lethal riots should have ignited a firestorm of protest from the legitimate media. Indeed, the White House’s posturing and the press’s acceptance of it is the most egregious abuse of journalistic ethics to come out of the whole sad affair. And while a few in the media questioned whether it was accurate or fair to pin the blame on Newsweek, their skepticism became a side-show in what was essentially an orgy of censure by the right wing and ultimately self-recrimination on the part of Newsweek and the press.
Just as with the Dan Rather affair, the balance of evidence suggests that Newsweek’s story was accurate, even if the sourcing was sloppy. The mistreatment of the Koran had been widely reported previously by several newspapers, and verified by US interrogators, former prisoners, the International Red Cross, and others.
When conservatives succeed -- again and again -- in making the manner in which a story critical of their interests is reported the main issue, rather than whether the story is true or not, then careless sourcing is the least of our problems.
The plain fact is, the riots and the anger that sparked them was the inevitable result of the President's policies, not a single one paragraph story in Newsweek. And letting the White House and the conservative talk meisters get away with making Newsweek the fall guy for the consequences of this administration's policy failures is an offense against the journalistic canon far more serious than how news is sourced, and far more damaging to the media’s credibility.
Let's look at the context, and the truths embedded within it. The Bush administration discarded the Geneva Convention and the rule of law in our dealings with Muslims. We’ve been guilty of torturing Arab prisoners; conducting illegal kidnappings under the rubric of "extraordinary rendition"; launching preemptive wars under false pretenses; assaulting the world with sanctimonious and arrogant lectures from the likes of General my-God-can-beat-up- your-God Boykin; and offering hypocritical support of corrupt Arab regimes in the face of high blown rhetoric about championing freedom and democracy. We have abandoned Afghanistan to war lords and drug lords, and our failures in Iraq have allowed that country to descend into chaos, and in the minds of many Arabs, turned us into occupiers, not liberators.
Newsweek is just the latest victim in this administration's desperate attempt to find a scapegoat for their botched war on terror. The fact is, the so-called war on terror is ultimately a battle for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, and Mr. Bush’s strategy for waging that war is a policy fiasco of epic proportions.
As the Defense Policy Board said in a report released in September of 2004, outlining the failure of the US to win the war of ideas in the Muslim world, "Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies."
DIA Director Lowell Jacoby outlines the depths of the administration’s failure in testimony before Congress each year in his Global Threat Assessment. In 2004, he said, "Support for America has dropped in most of the Muslim world." Here’s some of the chilling statistics he cited in that testimony, as well as some from a second poll conducted for the State Department in 2003. In Morocco, support for America dropped from 77% in 2000 to 27% by the Spring of 2003. In Jordan, it went from 25% in 2002 to 1% in May of 2003; in Saudi Arabia, it fell from 63% in May of 2000 to 11% in October of 2003. In Turkey, the number of people judging the US favorably fell from 65% when Bush took office to 15% in 2003, and in Indonesia it fell from a high of 75% in 2000 to 15% by the end of 2003.
The White House has been willing to wag any dog, tell any tale, trump up any scapegoat in a desperate attempt to explain away or distract the country from the depths of its incompetence.
No doubt the press has been remiss in how it uses sources, particularly anonymous sources. But that failure pales in comparison to the much larger failure of the press allowing itself to be laundered, rinsed and hung out to dry by the Conservative spin machine. That's why the press's credibility is at an all-time low; that's why readership is down, and that is the most serious journalistic failure being illuminated by last week’s riots.
Newsweek must account for its lapses, but if the press continues to allow itself to get spun by the White House and the right-wing whack jobs who routinely ignore truth, accuracy and context then focusing on sloppy sourcing amounts to little more than wiping up a spilled glass of water, while a Tsunami is bearing down upon us.
John Atcheson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.