'Newsweek' Retracts Story Alleging Quran Abuse

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Newsweek has retracted a story from its May 9 issue that set off deadly riots in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries. The item alleged that U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay put a copy of the Quran into the toilet while questioning prisoners. Newsweek attributed the story to an unnamed source at the Pentagon.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Newsweek has now fully retracted a story that led to violent demonstrations in the Islamic world. After first acknowledging problems with the story, the magazine has now taken it back. This report concerned allegations that military interrogators at Guantanamo Bay tried to rattle detainees by putting a copy of the Koran in a toilet. There have been several such allegations. Newsweek's mistake was quoting an unnamed source saying those allegations were confirmed by a specific military investigation. We're going to spend this part of the program looking at the use of unnamed sources in the media. First, NPR's Neda Ulaby examines the Newsweek article.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

In the immediate wake of the Newsweek story, there were no angry statements from the White House or the Pentagon. That strikes journalism Professor Tom Goldstein as odd.

Professor TOM GOLDSTEIN: The story held for 11 days without their knowledge that it was a bad story, which is really unusual.

ULABY: But in Afghanistan and other countries where prisoners are often held before being taken to Guantanamo, reaction to the story was almost immediate. Riots exploded and scores of people were injured. Fifteen people died.

Mr. MARK WHITAKER (Newsweek): We could not have anticipated the effect that this would have in the Islamic world.

ULABY: Mark Whitaker edited the story for Newsweek. Shortly before issuing the retraction, he told NPR there have been plenty of mainstream news reports about alleged prisoner abuse at Guantanamo. This piece was not supposed to be so provocative.

Mr. WHITAKER: This was a 10-sentence item. It was not a full-scale Newsweek investigation.

ULABY: The half-page story reported that an internal Defense Department investigation corroborated FBI e-mails that said the Koran, the holy book of Islam, had been desecrated by US military personnel as a way of getting detainees to talk. After the riots erupted, the Pentagon decided to launch an investigation into the story. Lawrence Di Rita is the Pentagon's chief spokesman.

Mr. LAWRENCE DI RITA (Chief Spokesman, Pentagon): The first thing we did was go to the FBI e-mails, and the second thing we did was go to the ongoing investigation into those e-mails, and we weren't able to establish that this allegation surfaced in either of those areas. So Newsweek painted a fairly specific picture--`Here's what happened--and they reported it on the basis of a single source who, as it turns out, acknowledged that he was perhaps in error.

ULABY: In fact, the magazine reports, quote, "sources tell Newsweek."

Professor TOM GOLDSTEIN (Berkeley and Columbia Journalism Schools): That's `sources,' plural.

ULABY: Professor Tom Goldstein has been dean of the journalism schools at Berkeley and Columbia.

Prof. GOLDSTEIN: Only afterwards are we told in Mark Whitaker's column and in stories that appeared based on that column that there was only one source. Now does it make a difference whether there's one anonymous source or two or three? Well, I mean, ordinarily it's better to have more than one, even though two sources sometimes can be just as wrong as one.

ULABY: That one source was a government official used before by Newsweek and trusted by its reporters. Editor Mark Whitaker said before publication, Newsweek showed the story to a Pentagon official who apparently raised no issue with the detail about defiling the Koran. Tom Goldstein thinks that's something Newsweek did right.

Prof. GOLDSTEIN: It's debatable in journalistic circles whether you show a story to anybody before it appears, and it used to be a total taboo. And now people are more open to that possibility. In fact, The New York Times, in a new policy on anonymous sources just released last week, suggested that this in certain circumstances might be advisable, to show somebody the story. Newsweek did that and still they got it wrong.

ULABY: On Sunday, Newsweek issued an apology that said in part, `We regret that we got any part of our story wrong.' Yesterday, Newsweek issued a one-sentence statement, quote, "Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay." Tom Goldstein says the fallout over the story is the latest in a string of cases, like the CBS report on President Bush's military record, in which the media became the story.

Prof. GOLDSTEIN: And it gets scapegoated. You know, it becomes the institution which gets blamed 'cause it's pretty easy to blame the press. And in this situation, yes, there is blame on the press but there might be blame on many other parties as well.

ULABY: Goldstein says the cloud of controversy may obscure the underlying issue of prisoner abuse at a time when trials for such abuse are ongoing.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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