Flushing Out the Story

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 27, 2005 8:51 AM

So the newly declassified FBI documents showing allegations of U.S. guards abusing the Koran have made a huge splash in the media, right?

Uh, no.

There were only a few mentions of it on television yesterday. The big stories were "American Idol," Paris Hilton's soft-porn burger ad, Jacko, a guy threatening to jump off a bridge, the allegedly wounded Zarqawi, the Bush-Abbas sitdown, Bolton and more filibuster fallout. The Koran ? That was last week's obsession.

In other words, "Magazine Retracts X" is apparently a more compelling story line for TV than "Is X True?"

The New York Times and Washington Post (which owns Newsweek) fronted the new Koran allegations, but that was about it for prominent play.

Now I don't contend that these FBI papers, unearthed in an ACLU lawsuit, get Newsweek off the hook. Newsweek made a bad mistake. But you'd think they would be getting more attention.

Let's parse the wording. Newsweek erred by saying in its ill-fated Periscope item that a forthcoming military investigative report would cite an allegation of the Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo. That was wrong, and Newsweek's anonymous source backed off.

The FBI documents don't prove that these Koran incidents took place--indeed, it may be impossible to prove one way or the other. The papers simply say that detainees have alleged to FBI interrogators about a dozen instances of defiling the Koran since 2002 (some of which have been written about before). It's possible that the detainees are all making this stuff up. It's also possible that Newsweek's source was onto something, but just confused about which document said what.

In any event, after the pummeling that Newsweek took, this would seem to be moderately important news. But it's not being treated that way, except by a few newspapers. And most of the crowing takes place among left-wing and moderate bloggers.

The latest, from the New York Times: "An American military inquiry has uncovered five instances in which guards or interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility in Cuba mishandled the Koran, but found 'no credible evidence' to substantiate claims that it was ever flushed down a toilet, the chief of the investigation said on Thursday.

"All but one of the five incidents appear to have taken place before January 2003. In three cases, the mishandling of the Koran appears to have been deliberate, and in two it was accidental or unintentional, the commander said, adding that four cases involved guards, and one an interrogator. Two service members have been punished for their conduct, one recently."

The Nation's Ari Berman gets right to the point: "No sooner does Newsweek retract its Koran desecration story then a flurry of news reports attest to just what Newsweek seemed to be reporting."

Marc Perkel writes under the headline "Newsweek was right after all":

"As it turns out and FBI memo has revealed that American jailers at Guantanamo Bay actually did flush the Koran down the toilet. This was on top of International Amnesty's report calling Guantanamo the 'gulag of our time' comparing it to communist prisons. Makes me wonder if all those corporate media apologists are going to apologize to Newsweek for being right all along?

"Have you noticed that the corporate news media is barely mentioning it?"

But isn't Newsweek, which kicked up the fuss, part of the corporate media as well?

Andrew Sullivan says the Koran stories are all too easy to believe in light of other documented abuses:

"SURPRISE! FBI documents provide countless claims by inmates that desecration or abuse of the Koran was deployed as an interrogation technique at Guantanamo. For good measure, we even have a toilet story. At this point: Did you really believe otherwise? Yes, these reports are from inmates; and, yes, those inmates are obviously biased, even trained to lie. But the sheer scope and scale of the protests, the credible accounts of hunger-strikes in Afghanistan and Gitmo, and the reference, cited below, of interrogators conceding that they too had heard of such techniques, seems to me to resolve the question.

"The U.S. has deliberately and consciously had a policy of using religious faith as a lever in interrogation of terror suspects. Is this 'torture'? It is certainly part of psychological abuse. It is also beyond stupid. Do you really think that throwing the Koran around is likely to prompt an Islamist fanatic to tell you what he knows? Did anyone ask what the broader consequences might be of such techniques - in polarizing Muslim opinion against the U.S., in providing every left-wing hack rhetorical weapons against the United States, in handing the Islamists a propaganda victory that makes all our effort to spread democracy in that region that much harder?

"Still, we can be grateful for Scott McClellan for one thing: he dared the press to provide substantiation for the Newsweek claim. We've now got it. Will administration defenders finally concede we have a problem?"

But Penraker questions why the detainees would be making these allegations:

"That's what their manual tells them to do. They've been trained to spout the most incendiary accusations possible on release from prison. These were people who were willing to kill hundreds or thousands of people at the drop of a hat, or to hack the head off a living innocent - are we supposed to believe everything they say?

"The [New York] Times seems to. . . . This is all talk. This is terrible journalism. Shout the allegation to the rooftops, mumble the truth under your breath. Front page treatment for each and every allegation.

"The Times, by magnifying each incident out of proportion, by not supplying necessary information (by alerting its readers to the instructions in the manual) may be guilty of getting numerous prisoners in other countries tortured or killed."

Terrible journalism? We shouldn't report what FBI documents say because the detainees might be lying? The Times says in the third paragraph that these are "accounts of unsubstantiated accusations."

We Move to Canada (that ought to provide a hint of their outlook) says "These days, whenever I make brief forays into mainstream media, or when it jumps out at me and I can't avoid it, I see or hear the phrase 'now-retracted Newsweek story,' or 'a story in Newsweek, which has since been retracted'. That's the party line: the story was false, Newsweek retracted it. Even though the story was true, Newsweek wasn't the first to report it by any means, and the retraction was coerced."

Under pressure, sure. But coerced? Did the White House threaten to flush all its copies of Newsweek down the toilet?

Balloon Juice decries "the silly mentality of those attacking the media because Isikoff . . . was right about the allegations but wrong about the exact source, who lied to them. Then, that is used as a bludgeon to in effect attempt to censor the media in what really is just another saga in the age old battle of the right versus the media. It is enough to make a man insane."

Joe Boughner at Megalomedia points the finger at Rummy:

"We're waiting for your apology, Mr. Rumsfeld. So. The FBI has reports dating back to 2002 of allegations of desecration of the Koran by U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay. They were just declassified. Now, who remembers when the Pentagon said there were 'no credible and specific allegations' of Koran desecration? I do! I do!"

On the filibuster front, OpinionJournal's Peggy Noonan accuses the Gang of 14 of "sheer, exuberant egotism":

"John McCain wryly reminded us not to miss A&E's biography of his heroic Vietnam experience. Joe Lieberman referred to the group as 'this band of brothers, and sisters.' But my favorite was Lindsey Graham, who said, 'I know there will be folks "back home" who will be angry, but that's only because they're not as sophisticated and high-minded as I am. Actually they're rather stupid, which is why they're not in the Senate and I am. But I have 3 1/2 years to charm them out of their narrow-minded resentments, and watch me, baby.'

"Oh, excuse me, that's not what he said. That's only what he meant. It was the invisible scroll as he spoke. The CNN identifier that popped up beneath his head as he chattered, however, did say, 'Conceited Nitwit Who Affects "Back Home" Accent to Confuse the Boobs.'

"Oh wait, that's not what it said. It said, 'R-South Carolina.' My bad.

"Actually, what Mr. Graham said was, 'People at home are gonna be mad at me for a while.' He said he decided to support the deal because 'kids are dyin' ' in Iraq, 'Social Security is comin' up,' and 'this is a lot bigger than me.' If only he knew that is true."

The New Republic rips the filibuster deal as smoke and mirrors:

"This compromise was a classic case of moderate deal-making in Washington--and we don't mean that as a compliment. Congressional moderates are forever celebrated for 'bucking their parties' and 'standing on principle,' regardless of what they actually accomplish (or what principle they stand on). In recent years, their pathetic 'victories' include trimming the first Bush tax cut from an insane $1.6 trillion to a merely outlandish $1.3 trillion; forcing an extremely modest reduction of Medicaid cuts in this year's budget; and, as Noam Scheiber pointed out last week, lamenting John Bolton's nomination as U.N. ambassador without actually blocking it.

"All these episodes were treated as triumphal achievements, and so was this week's defusing of the nuclear option. A typical story in The Washington Post declared it 'an extraordinary moment' for the moderates, who 'have demonstrated that there is an alternative to the partisan polarization that has been so much in favor in both parties.' A Post editorial proclaimed the deal 'a great achievement,' saying the 14 Senate deal-makers 'managed to put principle above self-protection.'

"Really? We fail to see how that's true. Compromise itself, after all, is not a principle. And the chief principle at stake--that every extremist should not be elevated to the federal bench--has been trammeled. Nor has the life of the filibuster (itself not a principle either, just a procedural tool) been guaranteed. Signatories merely agreed to filibuster future nominations only in 'extraordinary circumstances.' Everything depends on the interpretation of this absurdly fuzzy clause--a matter upon which Republicans and Democrats will most certainly differ. Which means what the moderates have come up with is not a resolution so much as a postponement."

Would this be a pseudo-filibuster:

"Senate Democrats today delayed a vote on John R. Bolton's hotly contested nomination as U.N. ambassador, as an attempt to override their stalling fell short," says the Los Angeles Times.

"With Republicans needing 60 votes to end the debate, the vote was 56 to 42. . . .

"In an allegation against Bolton made Wednesday, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee said that Bolton might have mishandled U.S. intelligence material."

I knew that DeLay had his share of critics, but I never imagined he'd be at war with TV detectives, as the New York Post reports:

"House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has fired off an angry letter to NBC, saying a character on Wednesday's 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' 'slurred' him.

"In the episode, Detectives Goren and Eames were investigating a right-wing group's connection to the murder of an appellate judge.

"'Maybe we should put out an APB [all-points bulletin] for somebody in a Tom DeLay T-shirt,' said Eames.

"In his letter to NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker, DeLay wrote, 'This manipulation of my name and trivialization of the sensitive issue of judicial security represents a reckless disregard for the suffering initiated by recent tragedies and a great disservice to public discourse.'

"'Law & Order' creator/executive producer Dick Wolf fired back, 'Up until today, it was my impression that all of our viewers understood that these shows are works of fiction . . . but I do congratulate Congressman DeLay for switching the spotlight from his own problems to an episode of a TV show.'"

Those godless Hollywood heathens will stop at nothing!

I haven't blogged on the House passing the stem-cell bill--Is Bush really going to use his first veto against that popular measure?--but

Walter Shapiro has some thoughts, starting with the president posing with babies:

"As warm and cuddly as these adoption stories may be, nobody is claiming that the countless embryos in the freezers of fertility clinics will somehow all produce new Tanners and Noelles to gambol at a White House photo-op in some future conservative administration. The stem-cell issue does not present a zero-sum choice between childbirth and research. Unless Bush wants to demand that all residents of China and Korea start adopting American embryos, there inevitably will be a huge mismatch between the number of available frozen cells and would-be parents.

"With more than 18 months to go in the congressional session, it will be near-impossible for Bill Frist to block Senate passage of stem-cell legislation until the 2006 election. Congressional approval will confront Bush with one of the most far-reaching political decisions of his second term. Does he wield the veto pen? Presumably, Bush would stand firm on what Tuesday he called 'the grave moral issues at stake.' That stance is perhaps comforting if you are a frozen embryo, but it offers fewer tangible benefits to those who happen to be living. And as Richard Nixon might point out from the Other Side, the living tend to be the most active voters, even after factoring in the political traditions of Chicago.

"The House vote illustrated the growing fissures in the Republican coalition between anti-tax libertarians and religiously motivated conservatives. Now that the Bush tax cuts are virtually permanent, free-market zealots may begin to wonder what they continue to gain from their oddball alliance with politicized evangelicals. . . . As for Bush himself, his legacy may be to have presided over the transformation of the GOP from the party of the War on Cancer to the party of the War on Medical Research."

Columbia Journalism Review weighs in on survey findings that are "flying directly in the face of conventional wisdom. Mainstream journalists exert much energy and angst -- not to mention gnashing of teeth, rending of garments and wringing of hands -- trying to keep their copy both resolutely non-partisan on the one hand, while nonetheless exposing charlatans, fakes, knaves and churls wherever they find them on the other. It's a balancing act that has given more than one editor ulcers.

"Turns out maybe they should loosen up a little.

"The Annenberg poll found that the public is far more sympathetic to the idea of a partisan press than journalists are. Whereas only 16 percent of the journalists polled said it was 'a good thing if some news organizations have a decidedly political point of view in their coverage of the news,' 43 percent of the public thought it sounded like a swell idea.

"Among the journalists, 80 percent thought a partisan press was a 'bad thing,' but only 53 percent of the public thought so."

So much for the idea that news consumers want a no-spin zone.

BTW, I'm off for a few days. You media critics are on your own.

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