When a Story Goes Terribly Wrong

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DEMAND FOR ACTION: For more than a week, the Pentagon didn't complain about the Newsweek allegation of Koran abuse until protests, like this one in Bombay, began to spread throughout the Islamic world

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According to Newsweek's accounts last week of how the article came about, Michael Isikoff, the magazine's best-known investigative reporter, became aware that a Pentagon probe was under way and phoned "a longtime reliable source, a senior U.S. government official who was knowledgeable about the matter." The source told him that the report would contain the Koran incident. Looking for confirmation, Isikoff approached a spokesman for the Pentagon's Southern Command, which operates the Guantanamo prison. The spokesman declined to comment. John Barry, the magazine's national-security correspondent, took the unusual step of providing a draft of the item to a "senior Defense official." According to Newsweek's account, the official challenged one part of the article, which did not involve the Koran allegation, but "was silent about the rest." After revising the portion the official had challenged, Newsweek published the item.

Within days, news of its report spread throughout the Muslim world.

Protests erupted in Pakistan and Afghanistan, though how much was actually attributable to outrage over the Newsweek story is a matter of dispute. Opponents of the U.S.-supported government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan may have seized on the report to stir up trouble. On May 12, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers said the U.S. military believed that the riots were not triggered by the Newsweek report. Six days later, he elaborated, stating that in the view of Lieut. General Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, "the unrest had been previously planned" but that the Newsweek story "certainly wasn't helpful." First Lady Laura Bush, traveling to Jordan, said she thought the report had been only part of the cause.

Whatever the spark, after the disturbances broke out, the Pentagon reviewed details of its Guantanamo probe and concluded that investigators were not even examining the toilet-flushing allegation.

Defense Department spokesman Lawrence Di Rita called Newsweek on May 13 to say the story was wrong. Four days later, he told reporters there were no credible allegations of Koran abuse to look into. News professionals around the country were somewhat hesitant last week to second-guess Newsweek's editorial judgments. They don't need to be told that even the most conscientious among them can make an error. But many believe the magazine made a series of questionable judgments that together led it into trouble.

For one thing, Newsweek's "Periscope" section, which features newsy tidbits, is scrutinized less closely than the rest of the magazine.

Whitaker conceded last week that because those items are short and often develop late in the week, "there are one or two layers of editing and review that are not there," compared with articles elsewhere in the magazine. That's no excuse, says Daniel Okrent, who just ended an 18-month stint as "public editor"—basically, the internal critic—of the New York Times. "It doesn't say at the top of that page 'Stuff that we didn't check as much.'"

Newsweek was also playing with fire by relying on a single, anonymous source to support such a provocative claim. In this case, the source was presuming to describe a still unpublished report that neither the Newsweek correspondent nor the source possessed. "You're trying to predict what's going to be in a document that hasn't yet been written," says Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. "If you have one source who says, 'I'm sitting in an office right now looking at the report,' and then they read you the page, then I'd say, 'Can you fax it to me?' Under those conditions I'd be willing to go with one source."

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