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Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

Newsweek Funks It

UPDATE 5.17.2005: Last night, Mark Whittaker, Newsweek’s Editor, retracted Michael Isikoff’s report that the guards at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran. He remains mulish on the subject, however: he says retraction was the word people needed to hear and doesn’t…

  • May 16, 2005

UPDATE 5.17.2005: Last night, Mark Whittaker, Newsweek’s Editor, retracted Michael Isikoff’s report that the guards at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Koran. He remains mulish on the subject, however: he says retraction was the word people needed to hear and doesn’t want to “split hairs.” Whittaker and Isikoff are probably going to be fired, but before any one says, “Good thing,” it is worth noting that the story is becoming more clouded by the hour. For a start, General Richard Meyers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told reporters last week that the 17 deaths were unrelated to the Koran story. Newsweek may not be responsible for people dying. Also, Whittaker has strongly implied that the unnamed source whom Isikoff spoke to was a senior official who had firsthand knowledge of a government report which purportedly described the Koran desecration. The News Hour reported last night that the Pentagon was given 11 days to contradict the story–and chose not to do so. To me, it seems quite plausible that the government is walking back a deliberate leak–either a trial to see how people would respond to the news (not well!), or a malcontent’s indiscretion. Finally, interrogators at Guantanamo Bay confirmed to The New York Times that a failure to handle the Koran respectfully led to hunger strikes last year and was, in general, a “chronic” problem. Who knows what really happened at this point. But the whole business makes less and less sense: something is wrong.

It appears that Newsweek made a tragically stupid mistake when it published a story on May 9th that reported that guards at Guantánamo Bay had desecrated the Koran. It turns out the story was based on a single, unnamed government source who now says he didn’t know much about the situation. 17 people have died in anti-American riots in Afghanistan.

But Newsweek has funked its responsibilities by declining to retract the story. Mark Whittaker, Newsweek’s editor, mulishly says, “We’re not retracting anything.” What’s wrong with editors that they find it so hard to admit culpability in these matters? Newsweek’s actions are reminiscent of Wired News’s refusal to retract Michelle Delio’s compromised stories–although Newsweek’s failure is far more disturbing, of course.

Almost as ugly is the self-congratulation and hysteria of bloggers. Glenn Reynolds on Instapundit says that “the press is basically on the side of the enemy,” and Austin Bay calls it “the press’s Abu Ghraib.” Only Andrew Sullivan gets it about right: the blogosphere has devoted much, much more energy to attacking MSM than it has to condemning US military torture.

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