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The magazine compounded its mistakes when reporter John Barry took the story to the Pentagon for confirmation and assumed he had it when the Pentagon did not raise objections to the Koran allegation. The Defense Department's silence, however, didn't amount to confirmation.
"There's a famous scene in the book All the President's Men," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and former chief congressional correspondent for Newsweek. "Bernstein says to a source, 'If I count to whatever, and you stay on the phone and don't say anything, then I know the story is right.' Well, that's the story Woodward and Bernstein got wrong in Watergate."
There are some who argue that because of the story's potential to harm the U.S. abroad, Newsweek should not have published it, even if it were true. Robert Zelnick, chairman of Boston University's journalism department and a former Pentagon correspondent for ABC News, draws a distinction between Abu Ghraib, where there was a systematic pattern of prisoner abuse, and the allegation of an isolated act of Koran desecration at Guantanamo, however deplorable.
"In this case," he says, "I think the potential for mischief was so great and the journalistic value of the information so small that I would have made a decision not to go with it."
Zelnick acknowledges that that's a minority view in the news business. What most journalists are trying to take away from the debacle is a clearer sense of how best to report the news. It appears that some lessons, basic as they might be, need to be relearned. As a chastened Whitaker told TIME, "You have to be prepared to defend the accuracy of everything that appears in the magazineno matter how short."