Wednesday, May 18, 2005

# Posted 3:54 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

NEWSWEEK -- MY FIRST CUT: OxBlog always roots for the underdog, so I've decided to start my search for an opinion about the Newsweek debacle by heading over to the liberal side of the blogosphere. Until now, I've mostly just read what the WaPo has to say about the story, and its material seems to confirm the conservative story line that reckless American journalists provoked unjustified riots in Afghanistan. For example, a front-pager from this morning reported that:

The report last week that U.S. military interrogators had desecrated the Koran has now been retracted by Newsweek magazine after five days of violent protests in Afghanistan that left 15 dead.
Although the Post is careful not to say flat out that the report caused the riots, this article and many others seem pretty confident that there was a direct relationship. The standard liberal response to this point is that Gen. Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that our commander in the ground in Afghanistan thought that the rioting "was not at all tied to the reporting in the magazine." Brian Montopoli of CJR Daily thinks that Myers' statement pretty decisively clears Newsweek of responsibility for the riots. Josh Marshall seems to concur. But Kevin Drum disagrees. He says of Myers' comments that:

That was five days ago, back when the Army itself still thought the charges of Koran desecration at Guantanamo were plausible enough to merit further investigation. At the time, when they were afraid the charges might be true, they were eager to claim that the riots were entirely unrelated. Now that the charges appear to be false, they're equally eager to pretend that the blood of Afghanistan is on Newsweek's hands.

[CORRECTION: I totally missed the fact that Kevin was trying to be sarcastic, something that he informed me of via e-mail. Strange how something Kevin assumed was patently ridiculous made perfect sense to me. After all, the Army really did have every reason to deny that the Koran incident caused the riots until it discovered that the incident was an apparent fabrication.]

I guess what I'm looking for now are reports from Pakistan and Afghanistan which look at what actually happened on the ground rather than relying on statements from the Pentagon.

Moving, one point that has turned out to be at least as contentious as the facts is the question of its signifiance. The most compelling version of the liberal argument on this point is made by Anne Applebaum in her column from this morning entitled "Blaming the Messenger". In addition to its logic, what makes Applebaum's argument compelling is the credibility of the author. If you follow her work, you know that Applebaum never hesitates to deconstruct liberal shibboleths, such as the moral integrity of the United Nations. Anyhow, the crux of Applebaum's argument about the Newsweek issue is that

The larger point is not the story itself but that it was so eminently plausible, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and everywhere else. And it was plausible precisely because interrogation techniques designed to be offensive to Muslims were used in Iraq and Guantanamo, as administration and military officials have also confirmed.
That is a very hard point to rebut. As bad as Newsweek screwed up, the Koran incident pales in comparison to Abu Ghraib, et al.

In contrast, some of the other liberal arguments about the significance of this case seem tendentious and overblown. Josh Marshall, who is certainly no stranger to high dudgeon, says that he sees
A clear pattern -- a White House trying to decapitate another news organization. The parallels with CBS are obvious...CBS brought the Rather-gate avalanche down upon itself with some very sloppy journalism, but the White House quickly saw the opportunity and grabbed it, effectively taming an entire news organization.
I'm not sure how much evidence there is that CBS has been tamed or, if it has, how long it will stay that way, but Josh goes on to observe that
What I see here is an effort by the White House to set an entirely different standard when it comes to reportage that in any way reflects critically on the White House." [Emphasis in original]
I'm not sure how Josh gets to that conclusion either. Hasn't the White House -- both this one and all of its predecessors -- always lashed out at journalists whose work it doesn't like? Somehow, Josh makes it seem that because the White House now has an actual reason to be pissed off at journalists, its criticism is less legitimate than ever.

While I agree that the White House seems somewhat oblivious to its effort to call the kettle black, journalists tend to be equally oblivious to their own shortcomings. So as far as I'm considered, this is just another round of bickering in the well-established love-hate relationship between the press and the White House.

On the bright side, I am always grateful for any scandal du jour that gets Josh Marshall interested in foreign policy, since he always stands four-square behind the principle of democracy promotion, even if he only seems to write about when things are looking bad for this administration.
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