Screwing the Pooch

No question Newsweek screwed up badly when it reported that a forthcoming Pentagon report would confirm a U.S. interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran down the toilet.

The magazine pushed the envelope in reporting the story _ using a single anonymous source, albeit a trusted one, and writing what the unseen report was expected to contain, a risky formulation considered by some a journalistic no-no. Further, both the editor and managing editor were away when the magazine went to bed.

However, Newsweek took the precaution of running the item by the Pentagon, which had no objection. And maybe the staff could be faulted for a certain religious insensitivity, but it was by no means the first report that U.S. interrogators had desecrated the Koran.

In a lawsuit filed last year, four Guantanamo detainees charged that guards had thrown the book on the floor, kicked it and on one occasion thrown it into a toilet. The Pentagon was concerned enough about the treatment of the Koran that in January 2003, it issued guidelines for its handling.

After at least 17 Afghans were killed in rioting, allegedly over the Newsweek item, the perfect storm hit Newsweek. The magazine took a fearful beating at the hands of the Bush administration, lawmakers and the claque of ideologues who resent the “mainstream media.”

Newsweek apologized, retracted the story and, let us stipulate, has been thoroughly chastened, although, one hopes, not enough to start pulling its journalistic punches.

What is striking is the pious hypocrisy that has accompanied much of this criticism, beginning with the White House. An entity that regularly insists on anonymity for its briefers and still shows no remorse for being hopelessly wrong about weapons of mass destruction has no business lecturing anyone about the perils of anonymous sources and flawed information.

Said White House press secretary Scott McClellan, “One of the concerns is that some media organizations have used anonymous sources that are hiding behind that anonymity in order to generate negative attacks.”

Then who, Mr. McClellan, were the anonymous sources in the White House who leaked a CIA agent’s identity in order to discredit an administration critic?

The administration makes no apology for its torture memos, its secret prisons overseas and its treatment of the Guantanamo detainees that make the rest of the world so ready to believe the worst of us.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at) Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,