Roundtable: Base Closings, 'Newsweek' Koran Article

Topics on Monday's table include whether the Pentagon should consider the economic impact of base closings, and Newsweek's partial retraction of a controversial story on desecration of the Koran at the U.S. miliary detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Guests: Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks; Yvonne Bynoe, author of Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture and co-founder and former president of the Urban Think Tank; and George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, the Defense Department proposes to close military bases nationwide, but should it consider the economic consequences on many nearby cities and towns? Joining us from our Washington bureau, Yvonne Bynoe, author of the book "Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and the Hiphop Culture"; from St. Kitts, the West Indies, Randall Robinson, author of "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks"; and in Maryland, George Curry, editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.

All right, folks, thanks for joining us. George, let me start with you and get your idea about these proposed military cuts and closing of bases. We hear about this periodically. The nation freezes for a moment to see the effect it's going to have economically. This could have a chilling effect on many, many people.

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor in Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association and BlackPressUSA.com): Well, I mean, we've been going through that--I think this is about the fifth one since 1988. And the reality is, that we're shifting. We're no longer in a Cold War mode, and the reality is, though, that you have politician who are very powerful, and they tend to protect their own bases in their communities. We see Trent Lott has fallen from power; that's why we see quite a few closings in Mississippi as well. But I think the reality is that we have to shift, and some of these bases need to be closed and consolidated. And you can't just say we've got to keep them open simply because they're going to have an impact on communities. There was a report on "60 Minutes" last night that showed that some communities actually do better after these bases have closed. I just think that's a cold, hard reality that we need to deal with.

GORDON: We should note that the recommendations--the official recommendations, if you will--will reach the president on September 8th. Yvonne, when you hear what George is suggesting there, that, `Look, it's just a reality. It's what is our world today'--that doesn't necessarily act as a balm for those whose lives have been bolstered by these bases for generations.

Ms. YVONNE BYNOE (Author, "Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and the Hiphop and the Hiphop Culture"): I certainly don't understand that, but I have to agree with George. Although these bases do have an economic impact on the regions that they reside in, the chief concern of the military is not with the economic concern. It's with the overall defense of our country, and they have to make the decisions based on changes in those needs. So if we get to a place where those changes are necessary and we need to downsize, that has to be the primary concern. And I also think in terms of talking about politicians and talking about money, under what circumstance, if it was just left to public choice, would we ever close anything or would we ever make changes for a changing world? So I think that we have to bite the bullet on this, and it's going to cause some hard times, but this is a new world and we have different types of fights to fight than we had 50 years ago.

GORDON: Randall Robinson, let me continue to play the role of a military man at this base that's proposed to be closed. While we're not having the scandals of years past of thousand-dollar hammers, it's hard for me to see the monies that are being spent on a day-to-day basis to conduct the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and listen to you talking about that you don't have the money to keep this open.

Mr. RANDALL ROBINSON (Author, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks"): Well, I agree with much of what has been said--that we have a smaller Army now than we used to have, and certainly the military has the right--indeed, the responsibility--to reconstitute itself, to reconstruct its presence in the United States. But we at the same time must remember that the military is but a creature of the larger government, and the government can't absolve itself of responsibility for consequences that follow in the trimming of this sort of reconstitution. Mr. Rumsfeld wants a leaner, more efficient military, but one really has to question the credibility of an administration that is now spending on towards $300 billion in a failed military effort in Iraq--an unwinnable and immoral war--and an administration and Mr. Rumsfeld who cannot plan to put armor on combat vehicles that have cost a great many American lives. We say we want to save $5 1/2 billion a year and at least $48 billion over a 20-year period with this plan, but this is just a fraction of what we're spending in Iraq in a wasted and killing effort. And so I think that you can't see this in isolation. You have to look at it against what the government is doing and what the military is doing across the world.

I don't see as well, as a part of what the Defense Department has said, a great deal of detailed concerns about what will be done to ameliorate the impact of this reconstitution on the affected communities. Certainly that's not the portfolio, the belief of the military, but it is of the larger government that has responsibility for what our military does, and we're not seeing that. Some areas will be greatly impacted, and we simply can't see callously these kinds of consequences as mere statistics. Many individual lives and families have been built upon this kind of expectation over a long period of time. We've got to do something more than to say that the Defense Department will seek to retrain some of the people affected.

GORDON: George...

Mr. ROBINSON: I think this is callous, and I think it's wrong-headed.

GORDON: George, plausibly, can anything be done, as Randall suggests there?

Mr. CURRY: Oh, I think, you know, Bush certainly can decide what he wants to do, but I think this train has already left the station and is going to run right on through those communities.

GORDON: All right, let's move our attention to a story that made news last week, and now we're seeing the backing up and retraction by Newsweek magazine. It was reported in Newsweek that--again at a US detention center in Guantanamo Bay, that the Koran, the holy book, was desecrated, even thrown in a toilet by some US military interrogators--found now, seemingly, that that evidence was incorrect, and that they had jumped at a story and gone with some leads that possibly now are being retracted. It has been written in Newsweek that we--this is a quote: "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the United States soldiers caught in its midst." And that is speaking of once this story broke, more violence perpetrated on Americans and US military figures because, obviously, they desecrated a holy book--so said the story.

Yvonne, A, the responsibility of Newsweek here, and, B, the idea that it seems we are seeing more and more often news organizations jumping to get a story out without making sure that these facts are indeed correct.

Ms. BYNOE: Well, I think the last part of what you said is the most important. We are indeed seeing more and more of these stories with a 24-hour news cycle. The competition is very extreme. But I think that if we read closely into what Newsweek said even in the apology or retraction--whatever language you want to use--they indicate that one of the persons that they went to to corroborate this story declined to give such corroboration. The other person is not really clear. They said they challenged another part of his story, which should lead them to think, well, maybe there's some problems there, and they said they did not dispute it. But, again, the second source, or the second person they went to for corroboration, did not confirm the story, either.

So it appeared to me, from what I read and my understanding, that they only had that one source, which later on turned out to not be particularly credible, either. So my understanding of any, you know, solid journalism practices is that you need more than one person to corroborate a story. And we're finding over and over and over with news organizations, with these stellar names that they are not only running amok with facts, the people who they're claiming are sources are not necessarily credible; in other cases, stuff is just being totally made up. So, I mean, there has to be a wholesale step-back, and we really have to get back to some real journalism where what is said is credible to the best of the people's ability to make that happen.

GORDON: George Curry, you've been in this game for a long time and doing this kind of reporting for a long time. Newsweek has suggested that the initial reports came from, quote, "longtime reliable sources," end quote. When you have a longtime reliable source, at least to get the story started, do you go with that without necessarily going for the second and third check, initially?

Mr. CURRY: You always try to get as many sources as you can, but this is what's fascinating. Ignore their apology. The real story is--and nobody's talking about it--is look at the other story that Newsweek has this week, away from the apology, when they went back and they said the reporter went back and he spoke to his original source who said he clearly recalled really no reports, but he wasn't sure it was in that stack of them. And he also said that--the journalist went to another lawyer representing some of these detainees, and he said that 23 of them tried to commit suicide because a guard had got the Koran and stomped on it, and another one said that a guard had taken the Koran and threw it in a toilet. This is a separate story away from the apology that seems to confirm what Newsweek reported initially.

I think there's a lot of pressure on Mark Whitaker, the editor of Newsweek, who's a brother whom I know. I was the first president of the American Society of Magazine Editors. He's a second--he's ahead of it now. He's a good, first-class journalist. But I think because of this worldwide violence--and the Pentagon did not, as Yvonne pointed out, object to it initially when they saw it, which is another question. Why would you submit a story to the Pentagon before you publish it? That's a totally separate issue altogether. I think there's a lot of heat there. But you look at that second story very carefully, there tends to be a credence to the original report.

Ms. BYNOE: But, George, even if that's the case, doesn't it still get muffled in the process because they only had this one source, which of course because of journalistic practices, they can't name? So even if this person had been reliable for 20 years, the confusion that it appears that they are putting out to the public is almost to say, `Well, when we went back to this person to try to shore up the story, he or she was confused.' So I'm curious what you think about that in terms of even how this source has responded.

Mr. CURRY: No, but the source was not confused. This is what I'm saying. Ignore the apology. Go to that second story, where he said he's not confused at all. He actually reconfirms it. And the problem with Washington reporters in general--and I used to cover the White House for the Chicago Tribune--the problem is that the officials always use the press as anonymous sources and hide behind that, and then when something like this happens, they say, `Oh, that's a terrible thing.' They do it all the time, and that's one of the downfalls of Washington reporting.

GORDON: That's part of the issue here, George, as you say. As they continue to investigate this, while one did, in fact, decline to respond--there was another challenge of part of that story--but did not necessarily dispute the Koran charge, which is obviously the most fiery of the issues here. We saw Condoleezza Rice having to come out and talk about there will be no acceptance of the desecration of a holy book like the Koran.

Randall Robinson, part of what we are seeing with this war, if nothing else, is the ugly side of it, including the participation of Americans in the ugly side of war. We have to a great degree whitewashed and sanitized war for a long time for folks who sit and watch it on television. Is it better to show the truth of war, in your opinion?

Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I think if our values mean anything to us, it certainly is. Part of the role that the press must serve is to check on government. For a long time, all kinds of abuses have been committed at Guantanamo, at Abu Ghraib and other places across the world where prisoners are being held. We are sending detainees to Egypt, where we know torture occurs, and other countries that do the same kinds of things.

The question here--I realize and I believe what George says is on the mark, the problem with how things are recorded and journalistic ethics and standards and all that sort of thing--but the real question is is the story true? There have been many reports from the detainees themselves that the Koran has been desecrated and that they've been subjected to all manner of abuses, including torture; kids who haven't had a hearing, people who are being held virtually incommunicado for the longest periods of time. And as long as there's no reporting on this, then no one in the American public seems to care. The only way we can be made to behave as a government is to bring these things to light. It's important that Mark Whitaker didn't say here that it didn't happen. He simply said that the source upon whom they've relied for so long couldn't recall in the last analysis in which report he had read this. But this is consistent with reports that have been rendered not credible by the military, reports made by the detainees themselves over the longest period of time. And so the huge likelihood is that this happened and continues to happen. And we need to know that.

Mr. CURRY: The quote from the other story, just briefly, "On Saturday, Isikoff, the reporter, spoke to his original source, a senior government official, who said that he clearly recalled reading an investigative report about mishandling the Koran, including the toilet incident." That's a direct quote from the story.

GORDON: And this is Michael...

Mr. CURRY: So the story...

GORDON: We should note, George--forgive the interruption--Michael Isikoff, a longtime veteran reporter at Newsweek. Go ahead.

Mr. CURRY: A prize-winning reporter and highly respected. So, you know, they seem to feel a lot of heat, and obviously with all the violence, they have to feel it. But in terms of the original incident, to me, there's still a real possibility that it happened.

GORDON: But, George, what of what Randall suggests there, the idea that the press, in general, is not necessarily doing its job as gatekeeper, as watcher, if you will, and that these kinds of abuses are more typical? They're not atypical, and perhaps we've not done our jobs in reporting it?

Mr. CURRY: Oh, I've long criticized it. I've been in the business 35 years. I've always said, but particularly official Washington reporting, they act more like lapdogs than watchdogs. I think that's quite a part of the problem. And, in fact, that Newsweek, even with the original item, would go to the Pentagon before they published it and say, `Is this all right?'--to me is an indication of the problem.

GORDON: Yvonne, as we look at this and other stories that have become problematic over the last four or five years, and certainly over the last 20 years in general--when you think back to The Washington Post and the problems that they had there, most recently The New York Times, CBS News, now Newsweek--this cannot bode well for the confidence of the public when you talk about these venerable organizations--veteran, old news organizations, war horses--for people to feel that the news is coming to them correctly.

Ms. BYNOE: That's certainly correct, and as was said earlier, that we are seeing more and more of--situations where actually the information is totally fabricated. So you have two separate issues here. There's a declining credibility in terms of what the public is hearing from mainstream press, and then there's the idea--or, rather, the possibility--the high, strong possibility that news organizations are really just following a party line and not really being independent in their scrutiny and analysis of what's going on with the government. So those things coupled together, the public frankly doesn't know what they're getting more times than not. And that's why a lot of people go on to alternative news sources, because if The New York Times and these...

GORDON: Yeah.

Ms. BYNOE: ...as we said, venerable institutions can't get it straight, I might as well try somewhere else. And that's what's happening.

GORDON: All right. Yvonne Bynoe, George Curry, Randall Robinson, thank you very much for joining us this day.

We were going to talk about cheating--principals and teachers helping students pass test scores. We'll do that tomorrow.

Coming up, brown and black tensions erupt at one South Los Angeles high school. We'll have the story in just a moment.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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