Debate Over Newsweek Retraction of Report Widens

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The debate over a retracted Newsweek report broadened yesterday into an argument about media and government ethics, with the White House urging the magazine to help undo the harm to American interests and critics accusing the administration of trying to deflect attention from its own deceptions.

Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that he welcomed Newsweek's formal retraction of a news item saying military investigators had confirmed that a U.S. interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet. Although that was "a good first step," McClellan said, the White House wants Newsweek "to help repair the damage" by explaining "what happened and why they got it wrong, particularly to people in the region."

Newsweek "can also talk about policies and practices of the United States military," which "goes out of its way to treat the holy Koran with great care and respect," McClellan said.

Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said the magazine had already explained in this week's issue that the military has special guidelines for handling the Koran. He also questioned the administration's sharp rhetoric, saying: "Are they making the story in the Arab street that the administration is trying to silence reporters about these sensitive issues, and is that going to keep the unrest going?"

Whitaker said Newsweek Chairman Richard M. Smith is drafting a letter to the staff that will include the handling of anonymous sources, such as the unnamed government official who gave reporter Michael Isikoff inaccurate information about the purported Koran incident. Whitaker said the magazine will try to "be a little more transparent to our readers" in providing details about sources and their motivations.

Lawmakers of both parties entered the fray on Capitol Hill. Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) charged the White House with hypocrisy, saying: "The administration is chastising Newsweek for a story that contained a fact that turned out to be false. This is the same administration that lied to the Congress, the United Nations and the American people by fabricating reasons to send us to war."

Stark added in an interview: "For the administration to be holier-than-thou about this is somewhere between obscene and funny. There are publications that often expose weaknesses in administration positions and they don't like that. They play tough."

McClellan rejected such criticism in an interview, saying: "We've taken steps to make sure we improve our intelligence gathering. This should not be used as a distraction from what occurred here. It gave an impression of our military that is wrong."

Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio), chairman of the House Republican Conference, urged every congressional office to cancel its Newsweek subscription. "Retraction and regrets will not atone for the reckless behavior of an irresponsible reporter and an overzealous publication," she said in a statement.

Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) used even stronger language, saying that Isikoff had "fabricated" the Koran incident and branding Newsweek's behavior "criminal."

The Newsweek report triggered protests that turned violent in Afghanistan and other countries, causing at least 16 deaths, although the degree to which the article was responsible remains unclear. Pentagon officials have blamed Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., for sparking the violence, but Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week that his senior commander in Afghanistan had told him the riots were "not at all tied to the article."

The State Department has cabled its embassies to spread the word that "disrespect of the holy Koran is not, has not been and will never be the policy of the United States," according to the Associated Press.

Whitaker offered more details about the handling of the 10-sentence report in Newsweek's "Periscope" section, a collection of short and sometimes gossipy items in the front of the magazine. Since the items are brief and tend to come in late in the week, he said, "there are one or two layers of editing and review that are not there" compared with other news stories.

In the case of the Koran item, Whitaker said, he saw a draft version on April 29, Friday, and raised no questions. The next day, which is the magazine's deadline, the final draft would have been approved by Periscope editor Nancy Cooper. Whitaker said he did not see the final version because he was traveling on personal business. Managing Editor Jon Meacham was out of town for an interview and for the White House Correspondents Association dinner. Washington bureau chief Dan Klaidman said he was also involved in the editing.

"You can be professional in your reporting and still make mistakes," Whitaker said. "Everyone here did the right thing."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company