Another Nail in the Media Coffin?

Aside from the death, destruction and lasting damage to American interests it sparked, the other tragedy in Newsweek magazine’s misjudgment in printing an apparently unverifiable item about desecration of the Koran by the U.S. military is the harm done to the credibility of the nation’s press. It is just more fuel for those who in increasing numbers allege that this country’s media is biased, unfair and irresponsible.

Reports of American disrespect for the Muslim holy book at the Guantanamo Bay detention center and elsewhere, including flushing pages of the Koran down the toilet, have been around for some time. But these claims, many of which came from detainees, were never verified. There were other reports that prisoners themselves used the pages to stop up the toilets at the Cuba prison. Nevertheless, military commanders were so sensitive to the importance of the Koran to Muslims everywhere that they issued strict rules to guards and other personnel on the proper handling of this holiest of symbols.

Conservatives, led by the polemics of a cadre of radio and television talk show hosts, will not miss the opportunity to cite the news magazine’s gaffe as compelling evidence that liberal publications and broadcasters will stop at nothing to discredit the White House and the military. Well, let’s face it. Who can blame them? On the surface at least, they have a pretty good case and one that increasingly strikes a chord with even the most moderate Americans. All who regard the industry of supplying accurate and honest information to the public as a sacred calling vital to the maintenance of freedom should be mortified. We too have become the victims of these kinds of professional lapses. They threaten our mission and economic existence.

This probably was, as described by a stammering Newsweek spokesman under stern questioning on TV, a “mistake in good faith,” whatever that means. No one is infallible and errors are made constantly in this business. But it clearly appears that the magazine’s editors and reporters were too willing to believe the worst and too anxious to get a piece of the prison torture story. The only reason that this item found its way into the magazine’s often-titillating Periscope items column rather than into a regular news story was that it was either regarded as merely interesting but not terribly important or it was a way of slipping skimpy, unverifiable information into print or both.

Items like this always are dangerous as any journalist with any experience can tell you. As one who has had a long relationship to the oldest of these kinds of catch-all columns, I can testify to the need to treat the information cautiously. At one point an unverifiable item about Russian flights over American territory caused such a violent reaction from the Kennedy administration it produced an antitrust suit. That is a far cry, however, from dozens of riots and 15 people dead.

In the current incident, the erudite editors and reporters of such a leading publication should have anticipated how potentially volatile this allegation was and what the consequences could be. The Koran-flushing incident was supposedly included in a government report on torture and told to Newsweek by an anonymous U.S. official who the magazine now concedes has backed off his contention. It was a tenuous reed, as such sources always are, on which to base a story in the first place. Even the rankest among us would have understood just how this might provide the match to radicals in the Middle East looking for any way to ignite their anti-American aims.

Newsweek probably will survive this although its reputation may have suffered a blow from which it will take time to recover. The relevance of the weekly news magazines has become even more fragile than that of daily newspapers in the era of the Internet and cable and 24-hour news cycles. The fact it took nearly 10 days for someone to react to the item is adequate testimony to that. Most Americans now only glance at these publications if they go to the doctor or dentist.

Sadly, the media’s quickness to think the worst of our own institutions rather than covering them with the equanimity that can sort out the truth from the fiction in an honest manner is threatening our press freedom as never before. Certainly, we are watchdogs, but we should only bite when we are absolutely certain. When the pubic faith in our integrity declines, everyone loses.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)