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May 23, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 7



Tom Roberts Dwelling on Newsweek error distracts from larger truth

Tom Roberts NCR editor

Whatever happened with Newsweek's source on the issue of Qurans being desecrated at Guantanamo Bay, the fact is the magazine printed something that it had to retract.

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The fact is, too, that the magazine retracted the story as soon as it was shown to be inadequately verified.

Several points are pertinent here having to do, first, with journalism, and then with recent U.S. conduct toward prisoners.

I know of no other profession in which one's errors are so prominently displayed and, if the medium is print, forever.

That's why respected outlets regularly run corrections and clarifications.

It is not out of disrespect for truth that newspapers and magazines make errors; it is out of an often fastidious regard for the truth that such outlets correct everything from misspellings to serious falsehoods.

I've covered various religion arenas for more than 20 years, and in that experience one could only hope that apologies for errors -- not to mention corrections -- would come as quickly from religious institutions as they do from media outlets.

That said, it was a rather elaborate display of unctuous and self-righteous posturing by the White House in the wake of the Newsweek error. This is the same White House that tolerates the manufacture of pretend news to be played by willing television stations, the same White House that has tried to develop programs to plant false stories in the wider world, the same White House that paid columnists to push its programs.

Whether intended, the result of the reaction to the Newsweek story was to deflect attention away from the mess in Iraq and the reality that reports of desecrated Qurans at Guantanamo had already been reported elsewhere.

The Red Cross has vouched for such reports, as has Human Rights Watch.

In a suit brought by four former detainees from England against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a host of U.S. military personnel, the plaintiffs claim: "On various occasions, Plaintiffs' efforts to pray were banned or interrupted. Plaintiffs were never given prayer mats and did not initially receive copies of the Quran." In one instance, the suit alleges, a guard kicked a copy of the Quran that had been lying on the floor. "On another occasion, a guard threw a copy of the Quran in a toilet bucket."

The point here is not to exonerate Newsweek or to say that being even close is good enough for legitimate journalism.

However, focusing on whether abuse of the Quran is something that occurred in U.S.-run detention centers misses the larger point about why the Muslim world is ready to erupt in fury against the United States on a second's notice as it did in Afghanistan, where 17 people died in rioting blamed on reaction to the Newsweek piece.

The larger point, of course, is that this White House has little regard for the truth when it comes to this country's participation in torture.

For some reason, the reports about abuse at Abu Ghraib in Iraq and subsequent reports by the Pentagon on torture that has occurred there and in Afghanistan have failed to raise public ire for very long.

The New York Times reported earlier this month, however, that an increasing number of Guantanamo prisoners have been released and "are providing accounts of their treatment for the first time to journalists and supportive American lawyers."

The truth will out, in other words, even if it takes years. Sooner or later we will come face to face with the awful stories. Then, the question is, will we attempt to pick apart the messenger or squarely face the message -- and begin to change.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

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