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Scapegoating Newsweek

Blaming <i>Newsweek</i> for a journalistic foul is just, but blaming them for 17 deaths and America's image overseas is just plain wrong.
 
 
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If there is a political playbook for right-wing conservatives these days, it no doubt begins, Step #1: Whenever possible, blame the news media .

What to do if the U.S. invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have sparked a persistent and bloody resistance that eats away at the president's political capital?

Blame journalists.

That's exactly what the Bush administration and its rhetorical attack dogs are doing with the "scandal" over Newsweek's story on the desecration of the Koran at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo.

In a short item in its May 9 issue, Newsweek reported that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that U.S. guards had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet to try to provoke prisoners. This week, the magazine retracted, saying not that editors knew for sure that such an incident didn't happen but that, "Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay." (emphasis added)

Meanwhile, after the original story ran, Afghan and U.S. forces fired on demonstrators in Afghanistan, killing at least 14 and injuring many others.

The conventional wisdom emerged quickly: Newsweek got it wrong, and Newsweek is to blame for the deaths. The first conclusion is premature; the second is wrong.

First, it's not clear whether U.S. guards in Guantanamo or other prisons have placed copies of the Koran on a toilet or thrown pages (or a whole Koran) into a toilet. Detainees have made such claims, which have been reported by attorneys representing some of the men in custody and denied by U.S. officials. Newsweek's retraction is ambiguous, suggesting they believe the incident may have happened but no longer can demonstrate that it was cited in the specific U.S. government documents, as originally reported.

Given the abuse and torture -- from sexual humiliation to beatings to criminal homicide -- that has gone on in various U.S. military prison facilities, it's not hard to believe that the Koran stories could be true. Given that last month U.S. officials pressured the United Nations to eliminate the job of its top human-rights investigator in Afghanistan after that official criticized violations by U.S. forces in the country, it's not hard to be skeptical about U.S. motives. And given that even the human-rights commission of the generally compliant Afghan government is blocked by U.S. forces from visiting the prisons, it's not hard to believe that the U.S. officials may have something to hide.

Until we have more information, definitive conclusions are impossible. But if you go on a popular right-wing web site, youíll find the verdict that administration supporters are trying to make the final word: Newsweek lied, people died .

Yes, people died during demonstrations, and political leaders in the Muslim world have cited the Koran stories to spark anti-U.S. feeling. But reporters outside the United States have pointed out that these demonstrations have not been spontaneous but were well-organized, often by groups of students. The frustration with U.S. policy that fuels these demonstrations isn't limited to the Koran incident, and to reduce the unrest to one magazine story is misleading. Indeed, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference last week that the senior commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Carl Eichenberry, reported that the violence "was not at all tied to the article in the magazine."

So, why the focus on the Newsweek story? It's part of the tried-and-true strategy of demonize, disguise, and divert. Demonize the news media to disguise the real causes of the resistance to occupation and divert attention from failed U.S. policies.

The irony is that the U.S. corporate news media deserve harsh criticism for coverage of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- not for possibly getting one fact wrong, but for failing to consistently challenge the illegality of both wars and the various distortions and lies that the Bush administration has used to mobilize support for those illegal wars.

We should hold the news media accountable when they fail. But we should defend journalists when they are used by political partisans who are eager to obscure their own failures.

Robert Jensen is on the board and Pat Youngblood is coordinator of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin, Texas. They can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu and pat@thirdcoastactivist.org.