Incite -- (v) 1: give an incentive; 2: provoke or stir up; "incite a riot"; 3: urge on; cause to act
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Newsweek: thoughts
Written by: Beck

For those unaware of the furor sparked off by a recent article in Newsweek, well, I'm glad to hear you finally got an internet connection in your cave. You can find some background from my initial reaction in this post. Captain Dave posted his own thoughts on the matter, and a lively debate has been going on in the comments section of his post. The main issues as I see it are these:

1) Is the recent outbreak of violence in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) a result of the Newsweek article, or did it happen independently (i.e. would it have happened regardless)?

2) What were the motives of the Newsweek reporter, Michael Isikoff, in the first place?

3) Just what in hell did happen down at Guantanamo?

I'll attempt to address the second issue first. To answer it accurately and precisely is impossible--only Michael Isikoff really knows what Michael Isikoff's motives were. Instead, we have to infer from what evidence is available.

First of all, Isikoff was instrumental in pushing the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinski scandals during Clinton's administration. This guy even over rode significant resistance from his editor to run the Paula Jones stuff (he was working at the Washington Post then). So while he doubtlessly suffers from political bias as much as anyone, he's at least willing to be bi-partisan in his criticism. I would say that alone elevates him above the level of mere "hack."

What of his activity during the Bush administration then? Well, according to his Newsweek bio, he did a lot of work reporting on the Abu Ghraib scandal, but apart from that, things aren't at all abnormally anti-Bush. Indeed, Media Matters has an article up listing prominent conservatives who have spoken out in defense of Isikoff. What's more, Isikoff was "blistering in his criticism of CBS' 2004 story about President Bush's National Guard record," and called for top people at CBS to be fired. Of course, that same Media Matters report claims that Isikoff was guilty of "frequent reliance on questionable sources."

Isikoff has even been critical of Michael Moore, which moves a person up several notches in my esteem immediately (Christopher Hitchens article "Unfairenheit 9/11" being a masterpiece of the genre).

The problem, then, isn't that Isikoff had any kind of political axe to grind. He just wanted what every reporter wants--a big scoop. Shoddy work in this one case merely lead to disastrous consequences.

The motives of Newsweek, however, are far less pure. Newsweek has a transparent anti-Bush bias (this is no secret--if anyone would like to debate this particular point, feel free, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that Newsweek is a liberal leaning mag). As Ann Coulter summarizes (yes, I know Ann Coulter hardly constitutes an uncontroversial source, but the facts here are nicely summarized by her, and are not in dispute):
When ace reporter Michael Isikoff had the scoop of the decade, a thoroughly sourced story about the president of the United States having an affair with an intern and then pressuring her to lie about it under oath, Newsweek decided not to run the story. Matt Drudge scooped Newsweek, followed by The Washington Post.

When Isikoff had a detailed account of Kathleen Willey's nasty sexual encounter with the president in the Oval Office, backed up with eyewitness and documentary evidence, Newsweek decided not to run it. Again, Matt Drudge got the story.

When Isikoff was the first with detailed reporting on Paula Jones' accusations against a sitting president, Isikoff's then-employer The Washington Post — which owns Newsweek — decided not to run it. The American Spectator got the story, followed by the Los Angeles Times.
The guilt, as such, should then be laid not so much at Isikoff's feet, but rather, at Newsweek's. Their hyper-eagerness to run a story which reflected negatively on Donny Rumsfeld's DOD prompted them to run with a poorly sourced story.

Next, what actually happened at Guantanamo? Have there been Koran desecrations? And what of Isikoff's "reliable source" who later backtracked on his claims? Salon reports that,
After the controversy arose, Isikoff's primary unnamed source told the magazine that although he'd read reports of Quran desecration in some official papers, he couldn't be sure exactly where, and he was no longer sure that it was in a report on the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, which is what he had earlier claimed.

The Washington Post had this to say:
"There had been previous reports about the Koran being defiled, but they always seemed to be rumors or allegations made by sources without evidence," [Newsweek editor Mike] Whitaker said, referring to reporting by British and Russian news agencies and by the Qatar-based satellite network al-Jazeera. The Washington Post, whose parent company owns Newsweek, reported a similar account in March 2003, attributing it to a group of former detainees. "The fact that a knowledgeable source within the U.S. government was telling us the government itself had knowledge of this was newsworthy," Whitaker said in an interview.

In another article, Salon reports that there have been multiple allegations of Koran abuse in the past, but that none have been substantiated, and have mostly been dismissed as rumors.
...there have been numerous past reports -- including from the New York Times, Washington Post, UK Guardian, and the Center for Constitutional Rights -- of desecration of the Quran by U.S. interrogators at Gitmo:

"One such incident -- during which the Koran allegedly was thrown in a pile and stepped on -- prompted a hunger strike among Guantanamo detainees in Mar. 2002, which led to an apology...


"The toilet incident was reported in the Washington Post in a 2003 interview with a former detainee from Afghanistan: 'Ehsannullah, 29, said American soldiers who initially questioned him in Kandahar before shipping him to Guantanamo hit him and taunted him by dumping the Koran in a toilet.
Salon then qualifies all this with an important reminder:
It bears mentioning here that the testimony of detainees can warrant some skepticism; terrorists are trained to undermine the enemy when taken prisoner by using allegations of abuse (we know this from al-Qaida training manuals, among other things.)
And that was about all I could dig up on Koran desecration. That aspect of the issue remains unresolved. Hopefully more information will come to light in the near future.

Finally, to what extent are the recent outbreaks of violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere--which have contributed to 17 deaths so far--a result of the Newsweek story?

Newsweek, to their credit, seemed to remove any doubt in the matter early on by taking full responsibility and apologizing.
Michael Isikoff, one of the two Newsweek writers who reported, based on an anonymous source, that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had desecrated the Quran, said "we blame ourselves" for the furor created by the now discredited report.


"The big point that leaps out is the cultural one. Neither Newsweek nor the Pentagon foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Quran was going to create the kind of response that it did.

"The Pentagon saw the item before it ran, and then they didn’t move us off it for 11 days afterward. They were as caught off guard by the furor as we were. We obviously blame ourselves for not understanding the potential ramifications."
While the weasel wording--trying to pawn some of the blame off on others--is rather disingenuous, the apology is nonetheless refreshing after the recent history of media malfeasance (Dan Rather anyone?).

There's only one complication: General Richard B. Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that the recent violence was "not at all tied to the article in the magazine." Media Matters goes on to report,
[A]ccording to Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, the violence "was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Quran" but was "more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President [Hamid] Karzai and his Cabinet is conducting in Afghanistan." Myers directly noted Eikenberry's belief that the violence "was not at all tied to the article in the magazine."
Nonetheless, the fact remains that there has been significant damage to America's image abroad as a consequence of the Newsweek report. On Austin Bay's blog, you'll find the following, from a correspondent of his:
I’m on my way back to Kabul, as I typically do every summer, but my family is completely opposed to my travel and work this year in Afghanistan even though I’ve safely transited there, in and out of State and UN/NGO service for nearly 20 years. The word I receive from Kabuli friends is that Isikoff has single-handedly turned US triumph in the country to a total disaster. It was thought an anomaly last summer that some wonderful–and tragically forgotten–American DynCorps workers (mostly ex-military and my good friends) were killed in an environment that was pro-American to the core. That could be seen as a terrible tragedy, an unreasonable sad event impinging on an overall positive atmosphere–a last ditch effort by desperate Al Qa’eda remnants from outside Afghanistan to vent anger at the overwhelming success of the Americans. Now thanks to one Bush-hating reporter (Google Isikoff if you doubt his intentions, [I did Google Isikoff and found nothing of the sort, as already written above --Beck]) the recidivist Taliban-Pathans of southeast Afghanistan once again have an issue to de-legitimize the Karzai-US alliance.
That's just the least of it though. Witness the violent protests going on in England in front of the US embassy.
About 300 people have taken part in a noisy protest over the alleged desecration of the Quran outside the U.S. Embassy in central London.


Shouting, "Down, down USA; down, down USA," the protesters called for the killing of Americans, the death of the U.S. president, the death of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the bombing of Britain, and the annihilation of the U.S. capital: "Nuke, nuke Washington; Nuke, nuke Washington! Bomb, bomb the Pentagon."

Some of the militant Islamic rhetoric smacked of incitement to commit murder, CNN's Senior International Correspondent Walter Rodgers reported. "Death, death Tony Blair; death, death Tony Blair. Death, death George Bush," the protesters chanted.
Lovely. The protests haven't just been confined to England and her former colonies, however. Reuters reports on protests around the Muslim world, and on the impact it has had on American diplomacy.
The article cites protests in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Gaza, Pakistan, this list goes on. And yes, these protests are directly tied to the Newsweek story, as evidenced by this quote from the Reuters report:
In Gaza, several thousand Palestinians marched through a refugee camp in a protest organized by the Islamic militant group Hamas. Several hundred Palestinians also marched in the West Bank city of Hebron.

"The Holy Koran was defiled by the dirtiest of hands, by American hands," a protester shouted at the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza, where U.S. and Israeli flags were also burned.
Then there's this:
"Demonstrations serve no purpose, we should do something practical. I am ready to blow myself up for the sake of my religion to embrace martyrdom," said Mohammad Ghafoor, 18, a student protesting in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Conclusions: The Newsweek report has the aspects of a partisan "gotcha" episode, though not to the hyperbolic extent characterized in much of the recent commentary from the right. Michael Isikoff is not a partisan hack. It's unknown whether a Koran was indeed desecrated, though there have been multiple unsubstantiated reports of such desecration. And while much of the violence in Afghanistan was not a result of the article, violence throughout other areas of the Muslim world most certainly were.

And there you have it.

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John Beck

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