Newsweek's Mistakes

By Richard Cohen
Friday, May 20, 2005

The first reaction I saw to Newsweek's retraction of that now-famous item came from out of the blogosphere -- someone attributing the mistake to the magazine's "antiwar reporting." The headline -- just in case you missed the point -- was "Newsweek's Antiwar Crusade Kills," and though the piece marshaled many facts, it came to the wrong conclusion. Newsweek, I am here to tell you, simply made a mistake.

Well, actually two. The first was the item itself, which was apparently incorrect and also not appreciated for its cultural punch. No one seemed to understand that when you allege that the Koran had been flushed down a toilet, it might trigger riots in the Muslim world. And then the magazine failed to issue a full-throated retraction and grovel in the manner expected from any institution that gets something wrong, especially the media. The rules for this sort of thing, as Dan Rather can attest, require total abasement, an approximation of what Henry II did after the murder of Thomas Becket (1170). Only a shortage of monks -- 80 of them flogged the king -- makes this an impractical precedent.

By Tuesday the critical blogs had been joined by the Wall Street Journal. It opined that the error stemmed from the press's -- and Newsweek's -- basic "mistrust of the military that goes back to Vietnam." Here the Journal has a point, but it makes it sound as if that mistrust is totally unearned. The lies of Vietnam -- beginning with the murky cause for the war, the Gulf of Tonkin incident -- were legion and well documented. Had reporters not taken a lesson from all this -- had we not learned something from the revelations of the Pentagon Papers and the later confessions of Robert McNamara -- then we would truly be unqualified to practice our profession. Skepticism is to journalists what faith is to the clergy.

I confess I've detected no overall antiwar slant in Newsweek, and I offer the fact -- not that it will matter much to its critics -- that the magazine is owned by The Washington Post Co., and the editorial page of its namesake newspaper has supported the war. Whatever the case, I concede that I sometimes detect a whiff of anti-military cynicism in the press. But that's almost instantly justified by something like the official report this month that the Army covered up the true cause of Pat Tillman's death. He was not, as we were originally told, killed by the enemy in Afghanistan. He was the victim of U.S. fire.

Who knew this? Well, from the report itself, it seems just about everyone in the chain of command, including the theater commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid. Yet he and others allowed the Army to announce a fictitious account of Tillman's death that exaggerated his role and lied about how he was killed. You can understand why. Tillman was -- he really was -- a hero, a remarkable role model. He had walked away from a huge contract to play pro football and, along with his brother, enlisted in the Army. No doubt, it was hard to admit that his life had been taken accidentally, maybe negligently. Still, it was the truth, and the truth is what we expect from our government.

I will spare you any harangue today about the mistakes and lies that got us into Iraq in the first place. Suffice it to say that for the White House and the Pentagon to come down on Newsweek for making a mistake is the height of hypocrisy.

Where, just for starters, is the retraction from Dick Cheney, who said that Iraq had "reconstituted" its nuclear weapons program? Where are the right-wing bloggers insisting he do so? And where, when it comes to such a touching sensitivity to the feelings of the Muslim world, was the conservative objection to the mad screeds of Ann Coulter, who wrote right after the Sept. 11 attacks, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity"? The National Review subsequently dropped her and virtually pronounced her unbalanced -- but she has been adopted by right-wingers everywhere.

We learn that no institution is infallible -- not the church, not government, not sports, not schools, not business and not, of course, the media. Newsweek made a mistake. It must find out why and how it happened, but if it continues to do hard, edgy reporting, it will uncover major news and, in time, make the occasional, inevitable mistake. Otherwise Newsweek will not be doing its job -- and that would be the biggest mistake of all.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company