Just months after Dan Rather and CBS brought shame and disgrace to the entire American journalism profession with their phony National Guard expose of George W. Bush, Newsweek magazine has been exposed for declaring with nothing more than one anonymous source’s gum-flapping that U.S. interrogators were flushing the Koran down the toilet to inflame detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
How many eerie parallels are there between the CBS scandal and the Newsweek scandal? Let us count the ways:
1. Both stories caused media types to hunt for years to prove the urban legends dear to the hearts of the Bush bashers. In the CBS case, reporters spent years pecking through George W. Bush’s National Guard records, searching desperately for, and occasionally suggesting the existence of, smoking guns. They just knew he had somehow shirked his duties. In the Newsweek case, reporters had spent years chasing down the most shocking Guantanamo-interrogation stories they could find. Slate.com media critic Jack Shafer assembled a pile of poorly sourced Koran-in-the-john stories dating back to 1983, a regular urban legend of Islam coverage. The media just knew the U.S. military at Guantanamo were guilty of serious abuses.
2. Both stories relied on a single anonymous source. In CBS’s case, he was “unimpeachable;” in Newsweek’s, “reliable.” In the case of CBS, that source was revealed to be Bill Burkett, a Texas-based Bush-hater with a lot more poison than evidence against Bush. In Newsweek’s case, the magazine misled readers in their original story by saying “sources” claimed Koran-flushing would be in an official government report. Then, they claimed it was simply a “senior government official.” Later, that “reliable” source couldn’t vouch for the accuracy of his own statement.
3. Both outlets made comical claims about their professionalism in a time of crisis. Dan Rather claimed he would be the first to report the story of his own incompetence, and also claimed, “Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the heart of it.” Wrong. Newsweek called their reporting process “careful” and their laying out of the retracted story “transparent,” which is a strange word to use when the unreliable source is still anonymous.
4. Both stories were incorrectly declared to be “confirmed” by outside sources. CBS claimed it had multiple typography “experts” who had authenticated the National Guard memos; it was subsequently revealed they could not get an expert to authenticate the memos before they aired the story, and then, the lone “expert” they cited as an authenticator said he had not done any such thing. Newsweek claimed it had presented its story to a couple of top Pentagon brass, and had received no denial; it was subsequently revealed that neither had done so because it is impossible to prove a negative.
5. In both cases, the story, left unchallenged, would prove highly damaging to the Bush administration. If Bush had truly defied National Guard superiors in a grave manner, it could have sunk his re-election campaign. If U.S. military interrogators were really stupid enough to think it’s a neat idea to get information from Islamic radicals by flushing their sacred texts in the restroom, the White House would be confirmed as reckless zealots declaring war on every Islam-dominated nation. At this writing, the death toll caused by the Newsweek story stands at 17, with over 100 others injured in the ensuing riots. There is no telling how many more may die.
6. When both stories crumbled, the media outlets were initially reluctant to retract anything. Instead, they went about arrogantly maintaining it was up to their critics to prove them wrong, not their responsibility to get it right. For 12 days, Dan Rather stalled and stonewalled at CBS, declaring no one could prove his story false. Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker’s first line with the New York Times was that “We’re not retracting anything. We don’t know for certain what we got wrong.” Luckily for Newsweek, they saw the light on this faster than Rather did but only, as with CBS, after an outpouring of public outrage.
7. But, even after the official retraction, the spin control continued. Dan Rather continued to insist, and other reporters followed suit, that, while the documents may have been fabricated, the National Guard story was true. Newsweek’s media friends united around the theme that Newsweek will be proven right, that Koran-flushing was not “beyond the realm of possibility,” as CNN’s Anderson Cooper put it. On Nightline, ABC’s John Donvan intoned, “What really goes on at Guantanamo Bay, no one really knows.”
It’s just tragic that certain members of the media are willing to believe the most exotic rumors about the depredations of President Bush and the U.S. military, long before they’ve been verified and long after they’ve been retracted.
(L. Brent Bozell III is the founder and president of the Media Research Center. His column appears courtesy of the Media Research Center.)