May 19, 2005

The Newsweek incident proves that responsibility is out of fashion

If George Washington founded this country with the sense of moral obligation ("I cannot tell a lie") in his heart, then he must be rolling in his grave right now.

In a May 9 Newsweek article, the magazine alleged that United States soldiers in Guantanamo Bay had desecrated the Koran, the holy book of the Islamic faith. The response in Afghanistan and Pakistan was predictable. Riots occurred causing 16 deaths. Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and the Arab League condemned the destruction of the holy book. Muslim clerics were threatening a holy war against the United States. Less than a week later, Newsweek revealed that the sources used by the reporter who wrote the story, Michael Isikoff, were not print-worthy and retracted their story.

There are two amazing parts to this story. The first is that no one has resigned or been fired. The second part is that no one in the media is calling for anyone to resign or be fired.

There is a long history in our media and our government that holds that if you lie, fabricate, plagiarize, cheat, or slander, you get fired or you resign. Nixon lied in office; he resigned. George Tenet, the director of the CIA when the famous WMD intelligence formed the basis for war, resigned. Jayson Blair of The New York Times and Stephen Glass of The New Republic were each fired when it was found they fabricated their stories. Four people were fired from CBS over the fabricated Bush National Guard story.

The media clearly have a right to report the news. I am not denying the freedom of the press. But where is the accountability for Newsweek and Isikoff when an anonymous source is used as the foundation of a story that turned out to be both false and deadly? Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said it best: "The fact is Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission doesn't withstand any sort of scrutiny. The unfortunate part about it is you can't go back and undo or retract the damage that they've done not only to this nation, but those who have been hacked, injured, and some even killed as a result of these false allegations."

Obviously, I won't hold my breath for Isikoff to reveal his erroneous sources. One blogger I read suggested that if an anonymous source turns out to have given bad information, then his identity should immediately be revealed—as if he had written a bad check. If it bounces, your identity should be exposed. That seems only fair, short of a new federal law punishing erroneous sources.

As I write this Isikoff still hasn't quit or resigned, even though the story he wrote caused 16 deaths. Whitaker issued a statement apologizing to the victims of the violence and the soldiers caught in its midst. The "mea culpa" is not enough for the damage his reporter caused. Clearly, truth telling needs to make a comeback in our society. We once had Honest Abe, now we have Slick Willy. It seems that a heightened social consciousness of honesty is needed. I find it amusing that the baby-boomers in charge of both the White House and Newsweek, so self-righteous in their own ways, are unable to be bothered about responsibility or truth.