Riotin' words

Analysis | Newsweek debacle signals time to change the standards

Issue: "Memorial Day 2005," May 28, 2005

Sticks and stones break bones, but words can't hurt? Go tell widows and orphans created by several days of riots in Muslim countries that left at least 16 dead. The riots came in response to a false Newsweek story about U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo flushing a copy of the Koran down a toilet.

The magazine has now retracted the story, written by top reporter Michael Isikoff and based on a comment by one unnamed source. Mr. Isikoff says no one "foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Koran was going to create the kind of response that it did," and Newsweek assistant managing editor Evan Thomas says Muslim reaction "came as something of a surprise" to the magazine's editors.

The "surprise" is one more example of the theological illiteracy of many major journalists, since no one familiar with Islam would be surprised by the reaction. Ardent Muslims treat copies of the Koran reverently and never place them on the floor. Christian missionaries to Muslim countries must be careful not to put the Bible on the floor, as that would indicate contempt for it. Desecrating the Koran in Aghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia is a capital crime.

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Many unanswered questions about Newsweek's reporting remain. Here are a few:

-If Newsweek journalists had been more knowledgeable about the likely reaction, would they still have run the story?

The magazine on Oct. 21, 2002, ripped Jerry Falwell's riot-causing depiction of Muhammad as a "terrorist," since "Islamic fundamentalists are having a field day with these comments, which have been played and replayed throughout the Muslim world." Does Newsweek have a similar responsibility not to cry fire in a crowded theater?

-If Newsweek claims a responsibility to print the truth, even when it's likely to lead to riots, why didn't it try harder to ascertain the truth?

Sourcery-the use of anonymous sources-has long been a journalistic problem, and going with one spectral speaker on something explosive like this seems particularly questionable. (The biblical standard is the testimony of two witnesses, and they have to be willing to come forward.)

-Why did Newsweek, after getting this story wrong, report new Koran-into-the-latrine charges made by terrorists and their allies?

The magazine "balanced" the new allegations by reporting a U.S. colonel's statement that, "If you read the Al Qaeda training manual, they are trained to make allegations against the infidels." But since terrorist testimony is not credible, why quote such charges without independent investigation?

-Did Newsweek go easy in scrutinizing the accusation because it is a sucker for attacks on the military and the Bush administration?

Is there a sickness at the heart of press liberalism that leads many journalists to want the Guantanamo story to be true?

Given the way Islamo-fascists act, do these journalists have a death wish for themselves and Western civilization?

-Should Newsweek be pushed to reveal the name of the government official it says was its source?

Some journalists have gone to jail rather than reveal names of anonymous sources, but what's the responsibility when the source has born false witness and caused the loss of innocent life? Shouldn't journalists offer only conditional anonymity, with the condition being, "tell the truth"?

-What does the riotous reaction tell us about Islam? Why do many Muslims leap into deadly activities at the drop of a story like this, or a report during a beauty pageant that Muhammad-so his friends said-liked and seized beautiful women? At least now, maybe, fewer people will buy the sweet depiction of Islam in the movie Kingdom of Heaven.

-Will other big media chastise Newsweek?

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne opined on Oct. 18, 2002, that President Bush should go after Mr. Falwell because "one test of leadership is a willingness to take on your own side . . . Mr. President, we're waiting." Washington Post, we're waiting.

Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker told the Post-the two publications have the same parent company-"there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here." Really? If so, it's time to change the standards.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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