A story that wasn’t true actually tells a true story


Khaleej Times

19 May 2005

THE embarrassing Newsweek climb-down on the Quran story is surely one for the annals of journalistic screw-ups. Sure, maybe the magazine’s editor probably should resign as a gesture of respect for the Muslim world, not to mention for whatever is left of honour in the US journalism profession. And for a respectful period, the magazine in general should hang its head in shame. But something serious is being lost in the crusade to quarantine Newsweek.

It’s that the story (which may still prove to have taken place) was in fact all-too believable in Newsweek’s offices and around the world — precisely because of the oft-crude manner in which the administration in Washington has been waging its "war against terror."

This war has been at times conducted as if Muslims and Arabs weren’t people, as if when they are imprisoned they definitely aren’t "real people," and as if 9/11 — admittedly a terrible tragedy — has been the only serious tragedy the world has experienced these last several years.

The Newsweek story said that Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had been humiliated by having to watch as a copy of the Quran flushed down a toilet. It turns out that Newsweek relied on but one source, and when that source a Pentagon official changed his story (because he had been lying? Been misinformed? Been pressured by higher-ups in the Pentagon to repudiate his story?), the Newsweek exclusive collapsed like a house of cards in a desert sandstorm.

Sure, it was a serious error to go public with a story like this on the basis of a sole source. Newsweek, after all, isn’t some bumptious, fly-by-night blog; it’s one of the best magazines around, with a famously superb fact-checking staff which ordinarily can distinguish the fly from the ointment with the best of them.

But the print story surfaced in this magazine against the backdrop of those awful pictures of Arab and Muslim prisoners being humiliated, violated and de-humanised by their American captors at Abu Gharib in Iraq. Without those pictures — and other tales of abuse — the Quran story would never have been published without far more extensive fact-checking, and surely not on the basis of a single source.

This is not to exculpate Newsweek, to be sure. It is to suggest that the administration, which is now calling on Newsweek to apologise to everyone and their mothers, must be viewed as something like an un-indicted co-conspirator.

For had this war, notably in the US treatment and interrogation of war criminals or enemy combatants (whatever we call them, they are still people), been waged by the US on a higher humanitarian level, Newsweek would have had a different kind of story. It would have had a stunning world-exclusive mega-scoop.

As it was, the weekly magazine turned the story into a very short piece in its Periscope section. In other words, the item was deemed as simply another example of bad things happening to "them" (Arabs, Muslims) at the hands of "us." Had the Quran story been the first of its kind, the magazine would have given it much more space, perhaps even elevating it to a cover story.

The fact is that much of the Muslim and Arabic world has already been traumatised by the American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, been repulsed and angered by pictures of prisoner abuse, and had its suspicions of American cultural disrespect confirmed by the likes of General William Boykin.

General Boykin, a top Pentagon official and a key figure in the US war on terror, in public speeches has unfavourably compared Islam to Christianity--- and he still has his job. That certainly says something to many in the Muslim world.

Newsweek’s little sin is thus nothing compared to this administration’s much greater sins. By launching a war against terror in a way that is probably working to infuriate a good part of the Muslim world, the administration has pretty much succeeded in spreading anti-Americanism even without Osama bin Laden’s help. "Osama must be smiling victoriously in his cave," commented a Pakistani newspaper. Maybe, but the administration’s foreign policy in the Muslim world is certainly no laughing matter.

Tom Plate is a veteran US journalist who has held senior positions at TIME, CBS, The Los Angeles Times and Newsday.