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Issue Date:  June 17, 2005

A protester holds up the Quran during a demonstration in Lahore, Pakistan, May 31 to denounce the allegeed defilement of the Muslim holy book by U.S. soldiers.
Scandals great and small


May was the month of scandals, like Newsweek’s Quran in the toilet and the New York Post’s display of prisoner Saddam Hussein in his jockey shorts. Then there were less noticed flaps, like the secret Downing Street memo before the war and The New York Times series on the torture murders of prisoners in Afghanistan. And finally the scandal of the administration’s and, in part, the press’ reaction to these stories.

Press critics call this the new crisis of media credibility.

For several reasons, a month after the event, the Quran-toilet story still lives. First, because columnists and TV pundits keep talking about what went wrong; the media examine themselves and announce reforms. Top editors must give the OK for anonymous sources and stories must explain why the source is unnamed. For example, the Times in its May 29 article on Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian whom the United States seized as he changed planes in New York and shipped to Syria to be imprisoned and tortured, identified its informants as former officials who “spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter involves classified material and is in litigation.”

Ironically, on the last day of May, 91-year-old Mark Felt, the No. 2 man in the FBI during Watergate, revealed himself to be “Deep Throat,” The Washington Post anonymous source who helped bring down the Nixon administration. Briefly the media enjoyed a national nostalgia for a day when more young men and women than ever before wanted to become journalists, when a newspaper and its anonymous source risked their reputations, maybe even their safety, because, as Ben Bradlee says in the last minutes of “All The President’s Men,” democracy is at stake.

Second, the flawed Newsweek story, though poorly researched, stayed alive because there had been numerous other Quran desecration reports. In the June issue of Harper’s, a Guantánamo interrogator stomps on the Quran, and Red Cross, FBI and new Pentagon reports have sparked fresh investigations. In fact, the May 23 Newsweek, this time naming its sources, said a detainee tried to kill himself when a guard threw his Quran in the toilet.

Third, the violent reaction to the story in Afghanistan has raised bigger questions than whether or not Newsweek was responsible for the 17 deaths. Commenting on both the Quran story and the demeaning photos of Saddam, a chorus of columnists and TV experts agree that the image of America in the Muslim world has never been worse.

The skin-pics of Saddam were revealing not so much for what they showed about one more naked prisoner as for a peek into Rupert Murdoch’s mind. Murdoch’s News Corporation includes the London Sun, which bought and first published the photos; the New York Post; and the Fox News Network, and is ruthlessly dedicated to justifying the Iraq War. The skivvy shots were an opportunity to pretend that we have “won” the war by humiliating the “butcher” in his unfashionable droopy drawers. The idea that to strip an Arab man -- even a bad Arab man -- and display him in mockery is to degrade him as a human being does not seem to have given Fox editors pause.

Meanwhile, two relatively minor stories, hyped by the administration’s exploiting Newsweek’s mistake and the tabloid displays of Saddam’s briefs, dominated the news, and two more important stories were buried in the fuss.

How many Americans know this? Second, how many know the details of Tim Golden’s two articles in The New York Times, which have generated comparatively little buzz, on two homicides in Afghanistan’s Bagram prison?

Because of President Bush’s February 2002 declaration that the Geneva accords did not apply to prisoners from Afghanistan, Golden said poorly trained interrogators felt free to treat the Bagram inmates as they pleased. They systematically disabled them with a sharp knee in the thigh, hooded them, chained them to the ceiling for days and beat them at will. They killed two: a 22-year-old cab driver, who the interrogators actually believed to be innocent, and another who dared to have a defiant attitude. Military spokesmen said they had died of natural causes; military coroners ruled the deaths homicides.

Let us return to the response of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (“People have lost their lives. People are dead”) and White House spokesman Scott McClellan (“People have lost their lives. Our image abroad has been damaged”) to the Newsweek mistake.

As such writers as Richard Cohen, Sydney Schanberg and E.J. Dionne have pointed out, this is hypocrisy. Bush, Rumsfeld and cohorts are responsible for far greater errors. On the basis of false information about the weapons of mass destruction, they led this nation into an unnecessary war that killed more than 1,600 of our youths and between 30,000 and 100,000 Iraqis, depending on how we count deaths by disease. This May alone, about 700 Iraqis and 70 Americans have died. Unnamed generals have told The New York Times that this war may go on for “many years.” Newsweek has apologized for its mistake. The administration has not.

This summer the media hustle to shift anchors, remake news formats, kill limping prime time sitcoms and dumb down content are meant to achieve two often contradictory goals: First, grab the attention of a younger generation trapped in the culture of distraction, products of an education too lazy to make them read. Second, restore credibility squandered by lazy reporters and editors who don’t research stories thoroughly and who have forgotten what the Founding Fathers, in the First Amendment, gave them to do.

They are supposed to be “watchdogs,” adversaries of those in power.

But they have gone supine, whipped by an administration that exploits their mistakes and controls them by starving them, denying them the information that the people have a right to know. When will reporters push the president with follow-up questions on how American morality allows us to detain 500 prisoners in Guantánamo without charging them with crimes, and how, within the whole military terrorism prison system, a hundred detainees have died? When will we count the civilian dead? When will the media publish pictures that show the full human cost of the war?

May is also the month of college graduations. A few miles from my own college, at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s commencement, New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who broke the Abu Ghraib story, told graduates, to a few boos, that “this is an unwinnable war,” and that we cannot trust our president to tell us the truth.

On Memorial Day, Ted Koppel’s special “Nightline,” like the “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” reads the names of the American dead. Someday the names of the Iraqi dead will make us weep as well, but until then we dwell on our more immediate neighbors. As the names, faces and ages appear on the screen, I am always struck by how young they are. They are mostly boys -- like students in my journalism, English and theology classes, 19 and 20 years old. They should be in college. But they are dead.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, June 17, 2005

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