Earlier today, we linked to James Taranto’s latest “Best of the Web Today” column, which began with his noting that “The obsession with Vietnam and Watergate is central to the alienation between the press and the people”. The segment we linked to concentrated on the latter; an editorial in today’s edition of Taranto’s paper looks at the former:
Newsweek deserves credit for coming clean about its dubious Koran desecration story in an attempt to head off further bloodshed. Already its “Periscope” report last week that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay flushed a copy of the holy book down a toilet has touched off riots throughout the Islamic world, resulting in at least 17 deaths, and added yet another weapon to al Qaeda’s recruiting arsenal since many Muslims won’t believe the retraction.
Less reassuring, however, is the magazine’s contention that the story is a routine error. “There was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here,” said Michael Isikoff, who was one of two reporters behind the story. Certainly we all make mistakes. But if printing such an explosive allegation based on the memory of what a single, anonymous source claims he read is standard Newsweek procedure–no documents were even produced–its readers must wonder about the rest of its content too.
The more consequential question here, it seems to us, is why Newsweek was so ready to believe the story was true. The allegation after all repudiated explicit U.S. and Army policy to treat Muslim detainees with religious respect, including time to pray, honoring dietary preferences and access to the Koran. Yet the magazine readily printed a story suggesting that what our enemies claim about Guantanamo is essentially true. Why?
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Our own answer is that this is part of a basic media mistrust of the military that goes back to Vietnam and has shown itself with a vengeance during the Iraq conflict and the war on terror. Long gone are the days when AP’s Ernie Pyle–an ace reporter by the standards of any era–could use the pronoun “we” in describing the Allied struggle against the Axis. In its place is a kind of permanent adversary media culture that goes beyond reporting the war news–good or bad as it should–and tends to suspect the worst about the military and American purposes.
The best example of this mentality has been the coverage of Abu Ghraib, which quickly morphed from one disgusting episode into media suspicion of the motives and morals of the entire military chain of command. Certainly the photos of sick behavior on the nightshift by a unit from the Maryland Army Reserve were news. But they were first exposed by the Army itself, through the Taguba investigation that was commissioned months before the photos were leaked.
The press corps nonetheless spent weeks developing a “torture narrative” that has since been thoroughly discredited, both by the independent panel headed by former Defense Secretary Jim Schlesinger and by every court martial to look at the matter. But rather than acknowledge that perhaps the coverage had been wrong, the media reaction has been to declare the many probes to be part of a wildly improbable cover-up.
As we say, much of this media pose goes back to Vietnam, and the betrayal that the press corps felt about body counts and the “five o’clock follies.” Reporters like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam made their careers by turning into the war’s fiercest critics and creating a culture of suspicion that the government always lies. Mr. Sheehan’s Vietnam memoir is titled, “A Bright Shining Lie.” And for many of today’s young reporters it is a kind of moral template.
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We aren’t saying that reporters shouldn’t be skeptical, and they certainly have a duty to report when a war is going badly. Where the press corps goes wrong is in always assuming the worst about military and government motives. Thus U.S. intelligence wasn’t merely wrong about Saddam Hussein’s WMD, it intentionally “lied” about it to sell an illegitimate war. Thus, too, an antiwar partisan named Joe Wilson with a basically unimportant story about uranium and Niger is hailed as a truth-telling whistle-blower. And reports from Seymour Hersh in late 2001 that the U.S was losing in Afghanistan set off a “quagmire” theme only days before the fall of the Taliban. The readiness of Newsweek to believe a thinly sourced allegation about the Koran at Guantanamo is part of the same mindset.
We have all been reading a great deal lately about both the decline of media credibility, and the decline of both TV news viewership and newspaper circulation. Any other industry looking at such trends would conclude that perhaps there is a connection. Certainly a press corps that wants readers to forgive its own mistakes might start by showing a little more respect and understanding for the men and women who risk their lives to defend the country.
Reading this item quoted by Matt Drudge doesn’t give the impression that they’re showing much contrition early on, does it?