Newsweek’s Killer Story
It is a mark, I suppose, of the vigorous health of the First Amendment that nobody immediately asked the obvious question regarding the connection between Newsweek’s report of book abuse (specifically, the Koran) by American personnel at Guantanomo and the fatal riots in Afghanistan that the account ignited, until it became known that the report may have been inaccurate. Nevertheless, the Ethics Scoreboard believes that the question should have been asked right from the beginning.
Why did Newsweek print the story? Or, to be specific, why did Newsweek decide to run a report that could have reasonably been expected to undermine America’s war on terror, put Americans around the globe at risk, and get people killed? Let’s be even more specific: why is some form of balancing process completely absent from the exercise of journalistic ethics even during wartime?
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “especially during wartime.” For we have heard, in the past, U.S. media outlets claim that certain news stories were held up or buried because they might have disproportional impact on events. NBC, for example, delayed airing the claims of an Arkansas woman that she had been sexually assaulted by President Clinton when he was the state’s attorney general, because the network felt it might unfairly influence the political battles at that time over Clinton’s Monica Lewinski-Paula Jones problems. But in the midst of an emotionally charged international environment where issues of religion, multi-culturalism, U.S. motives in Iraq, American presence in Muslim countries, anti-American propaganda, and anger over Abu Ghraib are festering sores; at a time when terrorists, Saddam Hussein supporters, Muslim extremists and others are doing everything possible, including the murder of innocent civilians, to drive the U.S. out of the region; in an atmosphere where U.S. allies like the Pakistan and Afghanistan governments are desperately trying to avoid public fury over their policies, an American news magazine chose to run a story guaranteed to set off a firestorm of hatred and resentment against the U.S. by members of Islam.
Why? (Tempting though it may be to do otherwise, the Scoreboard chooses to discount the answer some may give, which is that the news media supported President Clinton but does not support the Bush Administration.)
Now, after the damage has been done, Newsweek is vigorously issuing apologies and retractions because it appears that the story was based on only one source who now is backing off his original statements. But let’s pretend that the account had been completely accurate. Why print it? Oh, I know: “because the public has a right to know.” Well, I strongly suspect that if Newsweek polled the entire U.S. public and asked the question, “Is this story so critical to your existence and enjoyment of life that you feel that the opportunity to read it is worth deadly riots, the undermining of the war on terror, and increased aggression against American personnel abroad?,” about 99.7% would answer, “Of course not are you nuts?” (The remaining .3% would primarily consist of Michael Moore, Howard Dean, the faculties of most U.S. colleges, the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences, and, of course, every journalist who breathes.)
For this was not, unlike the Abu Ghraib prison abuse, a story that every American needed to know about, a story that raised crucial questions about American values, human rights, and military leadership. This was, at worst, an example of disrespectful and ill-considered conduct by U.S. soldiers that would normally warrant a reprimand. Flushing a book, any book even a sacred book, down the toilet is not against any U.S. law or international law that applies to U.S citizens. It is conduct, in fact, protected by the same First Amendment that allows Newsweek to print stories that get people killed. This is not some insidious evil that must have the disinfecting light of exposure shined upon it to banish it from the earth. As news, this story is minutia, a detail to be included in books yet to be written about the conduct of the U.S. military during the Bush years. Newsweek knew it, too: the account took the form of a couple of sentences buried in “Periscope,” one of the magazine’s catch-all columns. It wasn’t trumpeted through press releases as a major journalistic “scoop.” I subscribe to Newsweek, and the report was buried sufficiently that I missed it entirely my first time through the magazine. But minutia or not, Newsweek editors felt that the Koran-in- the-toilet story was worth risking mayhem to get it into the magazine. What kind of hierarchy of ethical values is this?
Newsweek says that it gave the Pentagon “plenty of time to complain,” that if the Pentagon had asked, Newsweek would have held the story. Sorry, Newsweek, that won’t wash. The Pentagon is justifiably gun-shy (perhaps a different adjective would be more appropriate, come to think of it) about requesting that a news organization hold off on publishing a story, lest the Pentagon objections become part of the story. But again, even assuming that the military was asleep at the switch on this (it wouldn’t be the first time), that doesn’t absolve Newsweek.
Presumably Newsweek editors didn’t sit around thinking, “Gee, it’s a shame this little story is going to cause riots and undermine the U.S. position abroad.” No, they didn’t see this coming, and that’s unethical conduct as well. If you take it upon yourself to publish news stories world-wide, you must do so responsibly, competently, and with judgement and consideration. Newsweek editors have experience with American super-patriots going bananas when there is a report of American flag desecration, and they well know that Muslim reverence to the Koran goes far, far deeper. In many Muslim countries it is a capital offense to desecrate the Koran; might that have given Newsweek editors a teeny hint that a story about American putting the Koran in the toilet might, uh, upset some people?
They should have seen this coming. It was their job to see this coming.
And once their editors saw it coming, Newsweek should have buried the story. It had an obligation to alert the Pentagon; it had an obligation to see if this was the tip of a more consequential iceberg of psychological abuse of detainees. But printing a story with such overwhelmingly negative consequences to the nation (Newsweek’s nation, it should be remembered) is an ethical abdication. If it turns out, as now seems likely, that Newsweek’s information was incorrect, that will make its conduct unforgivable. In fact, that will make its conduct, retraction and all, negligent homicide.
Yes: censorship of any kind is a dangerous slippery slope for a democracy, and self-censorship can be the most insidious censorship of all. But professionals are accountable for their actions, and even journalists have to apply some balance, some sense of proportion, to what they write and publish. A minor story that gives the public little or nothing but that whips a critical segment of the international population into an America-hating frenzy fails any ethical balancing test.
The fact that the magazine is receiving little or no criticism from other journalists shows how thoroughly we have accepted a set of journalistic ethics that not too long ago would have been unthinkable. During World War II, government censors reviewed news reports relating to the war and excised portions that might hurt America or its allies. Democracy and the First Amendment survived this major intrusion, but they might not have survived the lack of it. If journalists cannot be trusted to exercise some judgement during wartime, they are risking having the government exercise it for them.
This is an area where the conventions of journalistic ethics need urgent re-evaluation. Newsweek’s retractions are being rejected in Pakistan and elsewhere, and that is hardly surprising. The harm cannot be undone, any more than the 17 victims of the riot ignited by the story can be brought back to life. Only two groups of people can ensure that this kind of journalistic misconduct won’t happen again: news media editors, and government watchdogs.
There are good reasons not to trust either.