Monday, May 16, 2005

Reactions to Newsweek Koran Story

It would be pure hubris for me to feel as though I have something intelligent to add to every discussion that's big in the world at any given time.

But when religion and politics collide, most regular readers here are going to expect me to say at least something.

The sad story of the allegations made in a short article that appeared in the May 9 issue of Newsweek magazine is just such a collision. But frankly, it eluded my notice initially. It hasn't been until today that I have felt reasonably up to speed on the story.

So, several reactions from several different angles of vision.

First: As an observer, consumer, and frequent defender of journalists, I have to say that Newsweek showed an appallingly casual attitude about sourcing for the story. Apparently one source deemed reliable indicated that they had seen an official report from Guantanamo Bay, where detainees from the war on terrorism are being held, saying that a Koran was flushed down a toilet. This was said to be a ploy used by interrogators to intimidate Gitmo prisoners.

It seems to me that these allegations were of such gravity, the implications so severe, that more than one source should have been required by Newsweek before running the story. Back when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were tracking down the facts surrounding the Nixon Administration's assault on the United States Constitution, their Washington Post editors and they agreed to a protocol requiring them to get at least two independently corroborating witnesses or pieces of evidence before running their next story.

In the superheated atmosphere surrounding Guantanamo Bay, the fact that Osama bin Laden and crew appeal to Muslim religiosity, and the possibility that a religion was shown such disrespect, Newsweek should have applied a similar protocol, at the very least.

Yet, the magazine seems unbowed. Jon Meacham, Newsweek's managing editor--whose book on the friendship of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill I loved--told Reuters:

"This was reported very carefully, with great sensitivity and concern, and we'll
continue to report on it. We have tried to be transparent about exactly what
happened, and we leave it to the readers to judge us."

I don't think they get it yet.

Second: As a person of faith, I also think that Newsweek should have been very specifically more concerned about the religious sensibilities that would be aroused and the people who would feel violated before running such an inadequately vetted story.

I wrote earlier today about the misuse of a Christian faith symbol by a company equating faith in Christ with support for President Bush's politics, something which I find highly offensive and hurtful as a follower of Christ. Newsweek apparently never considered the pain and offense that their sloppy journalism would cause, not to mention the risk to which a story, the accuracy of which could not be authenticated, would subject Americans and Muslims throughout the world who have sided with our country in the war on terrorism.

Third: As an observer and participant in the life of the Internet, I know that because of the Worldwide Web, news sites, and blogs, there are now no news cycles. The gathering and dissemination of information and punditry is a constant and instantaneous thing.

This competition from "small fry" news and opinion sources (and the frequently giddy, self-absorbed, self-righteous sniping that these sources generate) has put "legacy" news organizations on the defensive, intent on proving their relevance and reliability, more anxious than ever to beat non-traditional news presenters like Drudge or whoever else, with the story.

Over the course of the day, there is no doubt that The New York Times, MSNBC, and other legacy organizations can deliver more news, more accurately, and with more sourcing than Joe Hoohah working after hours in the attic-converted-to-blogging-office at his house. But the army of Joes pecking away at their keyboards around the world aren't utter dolts either. Nor are the independent and informed bloggers like Glenn Reynolds and others, who show a remarkable facility for sifting through tons of information each day and presenting it, largely unfiltered (except for an occasional, "Heh") to their audiences.

The point is, one is correct in wondering if Newsweek and other news organizations aren't relaxing their standards in order to get the scoop. This seems to me a far more grave problem today than any overt philosophical bias that might exist in big time journalism.

Fourth: As a follower of Christ, I would say, "Check out the power of words!" This is something that the Bible affirms positively and negatively all over the place. God is portrayed as saying the word and creation happens. Jesus is called The Word, the very creative Power of God.

Words, when carelessly wielded by human beings, are also seen as things that can bring death and enmity.

The Bible seems to know what it's talking about! At least sixteen people died and 100 were injured as the result of this probably inaccurate Newsweek article. Words can have a tremendous impact. So, as a big-mouth myself, I must constantly ask God to help me to remember to choose and use them wisely. Words misused can have a terrible impact.
The story's told of a woman who visited a Medieval monk, a man highly regarded for his holy and sensible advice. The woman realized that she had become a terrible gossip, the purveyor of careless, hurtful words. She went to the monk to get his advice. He heard the woman out and told her what to do. She should go through the village and bag all the goose feathers she could find. Then, he said, she should lay a feather at the doorstep of every person about whom she had gossiped. After that, she should return to the monk.

The woman dutifully did what the monk told her to do and knocked at his door. The monk said, "That's wonderful. Now go back to each of those doorsteps and collect the goose feathers you left behind. Then, come back here."

When the woman returned for yet another visit to the monk, she reported that, all the feathers had been blown away by the wind.

"That is the point, of course," the monk told her. "We can be forgiven the sin of gossiping about others. If you repent for it, God surely will forgive you. Those you have violated may do the same. But no matter whether you are forgiven or not, the damage has been done. Gossip spreads as though carried aloft by the wind and you can't bring it back."

Newsweek's careless report, a rather small item in its 'Periscope' feature, had an impact in many countries around the world. Their apologies are appropriate and laudable. But the initial report will probably cause some to doubt the genuineness of their regrets, written off as face-saving or as caving into government officials with something to hide, no matter what the truth may be.

Fifth: As an American, I simply hope that the investigations that will unfold--both governmental and journalistic--as a result of this story, that none of it is true. Insulting people's religion makes Americans and Christians little better than the hate-filled people who use religion to endanger the world. America should be better than that.

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