In what is clearly a coordinated campaign of deliberate defamation, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, White House spokesman Scott McClellan (citing George W. Bush), State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher and Pentagon spokespeople Lawrence DiRita and Bryan Whitman have all sought to blame Newsweek magazine for the deaths of Afghan citizens killed in weeks of anti-American rioting. The charge is intellectually insupportable and morally indefensible. Muslims, worldwide, did not require any new information to heed the jihadists’ call to demonstrate against America. Newsweek‘s mistaken report of official confirmation of a Koran having been flushed down a toilet inside what Amnesty International has termed “the American gulag” in Guantánamo follows years of confirmed reports of officially sanctioned torture, both physical and psychological, some of it specifically designed to offend Muslim sensibilities. A Pew Research Center poll taken in early 2004 found that large majorities in four Muslim countries held deeply negative views of the United States. In Jordan, one of our closest Arab allies, our approval rating hovered at a mere 5 percent.
As those in a position to know have pointed out, the connection between the riots and the tiny item in the American newsweekly is tenuous at best. Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the senior commander in Afghanistan believed the protests stemmed from that country’s reconciliation process. “He thought it was not at all tied to the article in the magazine,” Myers explained. Afghan President Hamid Karzai confirmed this view. “Those demonstrations were in reality not related to the Newsweek story,” he said. “They were more against the elections in Afghanistan…. They were more against the strategic partnership with the United States.” A cartoon in the conservative Moonie-owned Washington Times depicting Pakistan as America’s puppy was also exploited in these same demonstrations. What’s more, the FBI has documented detainee complaints at Guantánamo of Koran mistreatment, including an allegation that guards had “flushed a Koran in the toilet.” The Pentagon confirmed five such incidents, though not the toilet-flushing one. (In Afghanistan, a Pentagon employee did report that an interrogator “took a Koran, threw it on the floor and stepped on it.”) This all must be viewed against a backdrop of an Administration that repeatedly manipulated intelligence data to mislead the nation into war–next to which Newsweek‘s mistake, while not insignificant, pales.
The Administration’s anti-Newsweek campaign is part of its relentless war on the press–and more generally on democratic accountability–in this instance eagerly abetted by its allies in the right-wing media and even some members of the SCLM (so-called liberal media). In a case where the age-old (and much overused) slogan “Which Side Are You On?” really does apply, we should hardly be surprised to find Rush Limbaugh playing for the other team. He explained–apparently on the basis of mass mental telepathy–that Newsweek “wanted the story to be true” because the media “have an adversarial relationship with America” and “end up siding with the bad guys.” His ideological bunkmate, Bill O’Reilly, added the calumny that Newsweek “magnif[ies] every mistake the military makes in order to hammer the Bush administration.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page professed to detect “a basic media mistrust of the military that goes back to Vietnam.”
Over at National Review, writers and editors participated in an orgy of media-bashing, all of it guided by Administration-sanctioned attack lines. Jonah Goldberg complained of “the media’s unreflective willingness to undermine the war on terror.” Dennis Prager charged Newsweek with being “directly responsible for the deaths of innocents and for damaging America,” driven by its loyalties “to profits and to its political-social agenda,” which “oppose[s] the war in Iraq and loathe[s] the Bush administration.” Editor in chief Rich Lowry also blamed “a media culture, set during Vietnam,” obsessed with “exposing wrongdoing and failures of the U.S. military.”
Coincidentally, these attacks were also leveled at anyone who questioned the Administration’s pre-war assertions touting its certainty not only of an Iraqi WMD program but also of its readiness to manufacture nuclear weapons and share them with its close ally Al Qaeda.
More disturbing was the willingness of so many in the non-right-wing media to embrace the Administration’s Newsweek-as-murderer narrative. Martin Peretz, part owner and editor of the not-so-liberal New Republic, termed Newsweek‘s editors “simply scavengers” whose arrogance “caused 17 people [to lose] their lives.” Washington Post media cop Howard Kurtz bemoaned what he called the “explosive consequences of [Newsweek‘s] reporting.” (Irony of ironies–in writing about Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker’s alleged journalistic crimes, including the overuse of anonymous sources, Kurtz invited an anonymous source to trash the well-liked editor as “the ultimate apparatchik.”) Not to be outdone, self-appointed blogger cop Jeff Jarvis denounced Newsweek for publishing a story that “cost people their lives, put the lives of our soldiers in the Mideast at risk, damaged the American position in the effort to defend itself and spread democracy, and damaged the already tattered reputation of journalism.”
The Bush Administration, in its campaign to eliminate democratic accountability, has consistently sought to undermine already faltering public confidence in the media, thereby further weakening the press’s ability to fulfill its essential role in our delicate system of checks and balances. The jihad against Newsweek, like that against Dan Rather and others, seizes upon honest media mistakes to discredit the very idea of neutral, reality-based reporting. The longer the mainstream media fail to awaken to this unhappy reality, the greater will be our collective impotence when they finally realize it’s time to fight back. For that reason–and despite its error–Newsweek‘s fight is our fight too.