Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The magazine in the toilet

An element of the American press -- never a favorite of the reigning administration -- is under fire again from that administration for a story being blamed for inciting anti-American sentiments across the Islamic world (as if that wasn't already a fact of modern life). In its May 9 issue in the kind of front-of-the-book item that's generally ignored or overlooked, Newsweek erroneously reported that, in the course of interrogating prisoners at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, a soldier or soldiers flushed pages from the Quran down a toilet at the facility.

What's followed since that minor item in Newsweek's "Periscope" section illustrates many things, not least of all the continued power of the press, and the ways in which the fourth estate remains at the mercy of its own immediacy in the realm of public opinion.

Within a few days of the Periscope item being reviewed in public, the magazine's top editor, Mark Whitaker, engaged in damage control, admitting the error while appearing to say that further research would be done into the matter -- suggesting a hope that Newsweek might yet be vindicated with new facts.

The administration was not mollified. In its typical attack-dog style, the Bush babies began, in a silkily sinister fashion, to make demands of Newsweek, including that the magazine send editors and reporters to Iraq and the Middle East to fall on their sword in the most public way imaginable, admitting the mistake to those people most thought to have been offended.

Never mind the fact that other, similarly damning evidence of abuse had come to light both before and after the May 9 report. Newsweek was chastened all around, and has been scrambling to regain its reputation ever since. The short-term hit to Newsweek's impressive journalistic reputation will pass; the greater damage, to the reputation of the press among the American people, will take a while to repair.

The very idea that the Bush administration thought that demanding Newsweek send editorial envoys to the region was a feasible solution indicates the arrogance of the Bushies, and how invisible, or nonexistent, they think the line between press and government is. Demands like this come when someone believes they've got you in your pocket, under their control. Such presumptions would be impossible with a more activist press, one more inclined to long-term investigative projects rather than obedience to the quick-twitch philosophy of the supremacy of gotcha and breaking news.

The Newsweek flap is the latest exercise is government's Tasering of the press. Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine are looking down the barrel of prison time for failure to reveal sources related to the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, an action that would have been unthinkable before now (Bernstein and Woodward never faced jail time for their Watergate reporting).

tktk

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