TCS Daily

The Newsweek Libel

By Ryan H. Sager - May 20, 2005 12:00 AM

What was it that pro-war conservatives used to say about those who opposed President Bush's project in the Middle East -- specifically those who argued that the Arab world was not yet ready for democracy?

That such a view was condescending? That it was insulting? That it excused tyranny and terrorism? That it treated Arabs and Muslims like children?

So just what is it about the bogus-Newsweek-story story that has turned a large bloc of the conservative world into excuse-making, low-expectation-holders?

Newsweek prints a brief item about U.S. military personnel at Guantanamo Bay desecrating a Koran (in the Periscope section, just to add insult to injury). Seventeen people are killed in anti-American protests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But when it turns out that the Newsweek story was poorly sourced and possibly false this somehow means that Newsweek has blood on its hands?

What rank demagoguery. What insufferable piety. What nonsense.

In hunting for another mainstream-media scalp to hang on the wall next to that of Dan Rather, certain blogs, newspapers and heavy-handed White House press secretaries have decided to ignore the exact same thugs, terrorists, murderers -- whatever one wants to call them, the ones responsible for putting the 17 bodies in the 17 body bags -- that the far left excused after 9/11.

They couldn't help it could they? Those poor, downtrodden natives, with their primitive attachment to their silly Holy Book, simply can't be expected to react rationally when they get it into their tiny skulls that they've been disrespected, can they? We must be more sensitive, no?

Isn't this, after all, why they hate us?

Dwelled upon, it seems, the logic of the Newsweek spleen-venters is quite plain for the world to see: Newsweek can only be deemed culpable if the actual killers are deemed less than culpable -- i.e., less than rational, less than human.

This, of course, is not to say that Newsweek did nothing wrong. The story certainly seems to have been a mistake and a careless one at that. But the notion that the story was somehow not-to-be-believed on its face is ludicrous. If, in this war -- where U.S. service men and women have been photographed smiling and giving the thumbs up over the corpses of abused prisoners -- there has not been one instance of desecration of the Muslim holy book, this reporter will eat one text from each of the major religions.

The fact is that the charge was entirely believable -- triumphant bloggers and press secretaries may find themselves a bit less triumphant if such stories surface in coming weeks and months with better backing -- and entirely worthy of print, if verified.

Some, however, don't even believe that. Some believe that American publications have no business reporting on U.S. prisoner abuse, whether the claims are substantiated or not. After all, would Newsweek really be any less culpable, or the 17 riot victims any less dead, if the Koran desecration in question had actually occurred?

"Just an apology is not enough. They should think 101 times before publishing news that hurts hearts," Pakistan's information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, said in Islamabad, according to the Associated Press.

That's not far from Scott McClellan's official response to the Newsweek story on behalf of the Bush administration -- and that should worry even people outside of the Michael Moore fringe.

Freedom of the press is the freedom to get things wrong. That's not something Newsweek is likely to say in its own defense, but it's the essence of a system that allows open and wide-ranging criticism of the government and other public institutions.

The Bush administration is no American Taliban, but it's certainly not doing anything to preserve press freedom by shifting blame for violence away from rioters and toward reporters. Its opportunistic response allows a representative of the Afghan government to threaten that "Newsweek can be held responsible for the damages caused by their story."

As usual, the Bush administration and the rest of the right have plausible deniability, here. They can say they're only calling for journalists to be more responsible. They can say they're not calling for any restrictions on the press. They can say they're strong supporters of the First Amendment.

But how long can they keep stoking the fires of American jingoism, how long can they insinuate that the American press is unpatriotic, how long can they portray all critics of administration policy as tools of the enemy before real damage is done to our civic culture?

Once they've bludgeoned our press freedoms in service to respecting our enemies' delicate religious sensibilities, it is they who will have ink on their hands.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at



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