By Chris Hanson
Sunday, May 22, 2005
India, 1857. Islamic and Hindu soldiers in the British army, called sepoys, mutiny over news that they will be issued cartridges greased with pork and beef fat, which they would have to bite open with their teeth before loading their new Lee-Enfield rifles. The British have no clue how sacrilegious eating pork is to a Muslim or beef to a Hindu. They are oblivious to the pent-up resentment against imperial rule, and flabbergasted when the Sepoy Rebellion spreads across India.
According to some accounts, the greased-cartridge purchase was only a rumor. In other versions, the sepoys refused to believe a British assurance that the cartridges had been swapped for others coated in non-blasphemous lubricant. The mutiny was not quelled until June of 1858, after massacres of European civilians, ghastly reprisals and savage battles in a civil war triggered by questionable information.
If this story has an eerie ring, it's because we're in the middle of our own "greased cartridge" controversy -- the story of a Holy Koran supposedly flushed down a prison toilet by an American interrogator to torment Muslim terror suspects, as reported by Newsweek in its May 9 issue. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the story drew protests that were at first peaceful, but then turned into riots in which at least 15 people died. After the Bush administration roused itself to deny the story vehemently, the magazine wavered, then issued a retraction.
Some rival news outfits and TV pundits have hammered Newsweek for what one editorial called "shoddy journalism." The magazine deserved the pounding, because it had based a highly combustible story on a single anonymous source, which increased the possibility of error.
But Newsweek's mistake is only the latest example of a deepening crisis in American journalism. Too often these days, reporters and editors seem unable or unwilling to perform a basic duty -- sifting rumor from fact, salesmanship from independent analysis -- and instead become conduits for falsehoods, half-truths and propaganda. Whether they know it or not, news media are helping create a world in which we often don't know what we know, and don't know what we don't know, and are thus easy marks for manipulation by anyone from politicians to ideologues to self-help gurus.
The very speed at which information -- or what passes for it -- comes at us is a big part of the problem. In 1857, the sepoy cartridge rumor appears to have spread slowly among Indian regiments, largely by word-of-mouth, over a period of months. In the wired world of 2005, by contrast, Newsweek's story zipped from modem to modem and then from radio broadcast to mosque, quickly igniting unrest that had simmered just below the surface. By the time the denials and retractions caught up, belief in the Koran abuse was probably too deeply rooted in the Muslim world for much skepticism to penetrate.
It is much the same with other stories. Information hurtles back and forth so quickly that fact, rumor and conjecture seem to blur -- especially when bloggers with political agendas get into the act. Conservative bloggers pounced quickly to discredit the documents then-CBS anchor Dan Rather relied on last fall in his infamous report about President Bush's National Guard performance. Cyber-debate then moved on briskly to other things. Many people think the documents were proven to be forgeries and the gist of the report false. But in reality, no one has demonstrated conclusively whether the documents are fake, or whether or not Bush disobeyed orders to shirk flight status as alleged.
Bloggers also set the pace when CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan came under fire last year for allegedly asserting, at a conference not covered by the news media, that U.S. soldiers had deliberately shot journalists in Iraq. Jordan insisted he had meant only that soldiers had been reckless, shooting at targets they did not know were journalists. But outrage spread so quickly over the net that Jordan resigned -- and the top story moved on -- before anyone could verify exactly what he had said. There were plenty of eyewitnesses with different versions of what he said, but there was no transcript, and to this day the issue remains murky.
Ironically, Newsweek and its Koran-abuse reporter, Michael Isikoff, inadvertently helped create today's fact-challenged media tornado. Seven years ago, cyber-gossip Matt Drudge -- who might be called blogger.0 -- scooped Newsweek on its own Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky blockbuster, posting on his Web site a leaked synopsis of the story Isikoff had prepared for the magazine about the affair between the president and the intern. So began the shift to intense Web competition among mainstream news outlets. To avoid being Drudged, they began posting their scoops online, on what had hitherto been glacial newspaper sites that never carried exclusives ahead of the paper editions. It was suddenly a deadline-every-second world, with little time for verification. Glaring errors and fast retractions have not slowed this drive for scoops.
Or even scooplets. Newsweek thought its Koran-in-the-toilet exclusive worthy of just a few lines in its gossipy Periscope section. The Newsweek team could have held the story for more verification. Instead, they checked the draft with a Pentagon official. He did not dispute the anecdote, and Newsweek evidently got the wrong impression that he had confirmed it. This was a far cry from the laborious checking and multi-source requirements that had delayed Newsweek's Lewinsky story in 1998. In keeping with today's looser approach, they fired their story into the air. It fell to earth, they knew not where. Until the riots, the denials and the denunciations.
Cyber-pace journalism plays havoc with subtlety, precision, distinctions, qualifications and consistency. The tempo demands simple ideas and crude story lines. For instance, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has raised doubts that Newsweek was the main cause of the riots and deaths, as the White House claimed ("The report had real consequences," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said. "People have lost their lives."). Myers raised the possibility that anti-U.S. elements had been simmering, organizing, waiting for a pretext to let fly. Earlier reports of Koran desecration at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- most based on detainee complaints -- had not set off riots. Newsweek's offering, with its whiff of U.S. admission of wrongdoing, gave such opposition figures as ex-cricketer Imran Khan of Pakistan a reason for agitation. Even so, the simpler, sexier "Newsweek Kills!" narrative stuck.
Another simple-for-cyber story line was "Newsweek Wrong!", trumpeting the administration's angry, full-bore denial/condemnation of the magazine's account, which it called "irresponsible" and "demonstrably false." "They cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. Reporters continued to run with this even after a senior spokesman announced that the Pentagon was continuing to investigate whether a Koran had in fact been flushed.
By the same token, as Brian Montopoli noted in a CJR Daily posting, news outlets reported that Newsweek had issued a full retraction. In fact, the magazine only retracted the claim that a particular Southern Command report had confirmed the Koran abuse. The magazine's source had evidently held fast to the statement that military investigators confirmed the Koran incident, but in some other document. It appears that Newsweek is quietly standing by the inflammatory heart of its story and issued a non-retraction retraction. I guess this was just a little too intricate for reporters to deal with -- or too risky, as the White House denied Koran-flushing with press-devouring intensity.
Rumors and half-truths are most likely to take on the guise of solid fact when there is a dearth of information about a compelling topic. Twenty-four-hour cable news has made the problem far worse, especially when a compelling story is breaking and the cable news channels feel obliged to cover it around the clock, with little of substance to report. That was the situation during much of the 2002 Beltway sniper crisis.
And the solution was bogus news -- interviews with profilers, who told us to be on the lookout for an angry, middle-aged white man in a white van. That information ceased to be useful once police had arrested two African American males in a blue Chevrolet Caprice, but while we were still in suspense, it was reassuring to believe that the profilers were on top of the case.
On top of it all, journalists must deal with an administration whose penchant for secrecy has grown only stronger since 9/11. For instance, the administration has tried to impose a news blackout on its archipelago of prisons for terror suspects. Journalists know virtually nothing about what goes on inside them, so naturally, they play up what little comes their way.
When released Guantanamo detainees declared months ago that they had seen interrogators put Korans in toilets, media gave their claims wide and prominent circulation, even though it was impossible to verify them. It seems that if you can't report solid facts, you can at least report assertions. It was their claims that helped make the Newsweek story seem plausible. Unfortunately, many in the audience regard unverified assertions as gospel, just as sepoys knew with certainty that the British had defiled their cartridges.
Given the staggering advances in communications technology since the Indian mutiny, it's sobering to realize how difficult it remains to cut through rumor with steely, unswerving fact. We reach so many of our judgments in fog and depend on journalists like my old colleague Isikoff to help us see more clearly. So take your lumps, Mike, then go back out and nail this story down.
Chris Hanson, a former reporter for the Washington Star, Reuters and Hearst newspapers, teaches at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.