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Pinning the Blame on Newsweek

If there is a political playbook for
right-wing conservatives these days, it no doubt begins, “Step
#1: Whenever possible, blame the news media.”

What to do if the U.S. invasions/occupations of Afghanistan and
Iraq have sparked resistance in those countries because people
generally don’t like being occupied by a foreign power that has
interests in exploiting their resources and/or geopolitical value?
Blame journalists.

That’s exactly what the Bush administration and its rhetorical
attack dogs are doing with the “scandal” over Newsweek‘s
story on the desecration of the Quran at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo.

In a short item in its May 9 issue, Newsweek reported
that U.S. military investigators had found evidence that U.S.
guards had flushed a copy of the Quran down a toilet to try to
provoke prisoners. This week, the magazine retracted, saying
not that editors knew for sure that such an incident didn’t happen
but that, “Based on what we know now, we are retracting
our original story that an internal military investigation had
uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay.”

Meanwhile, after the original story ran, Afghan and U.S. forces
fired on demonstrators in Afghanistan, killing at least 14 and
injuring many others.

The conventional wisdom emerged quickly: Newsweek got
it wrong, and Newsweek is to blame for the deaths. The
first conclusion is premature; the second is wrong.

First, it’s not clear whether U.S. guards in Guantanamo or other
prisons have placed copies of the Quran on a toilet or thrown
pages (or a whole Quran) into a toilet. Detainees have made such
claims, which have been reported by attorneys representing some
of the men in custody and denied by U.S. officials. Newsweek‘s
retraction is ambiguous, suggesting they believe the incident
may have happened but no longer can demonstrate that it was cited
in the specific U.S. government documents, as originally reported.

Given the abuse and torture — from sexual humiliation to beatings
to criminal homicide — that has gone on in various U.S. military
prison facilities, it’s not hard to believe that the Quran stories
could be true. Given that last month U.S. officials pressured
the United Nations to eliminate the job of its top human-rights
investigator in Afghanistan after that official criticized violations
by U.S. forces in the country, it’s not hard to be skeptical
about U.S. motives. And given that even the human-rights commission
of the generally compliant Afghan government is blocked by U.S.
forces from visiting the prisons, it’s not hard to believe that
the U.S. officials may have something to hide.

Until we have more information, definitive conclusions are impossible.
But if you go on a popular right-wing web site, you’ll find the
verdict that administration supporters are trying to make the
final word: “Newsweek lied, people died.”

Yes, people died during demonstrations, and political leaders
in the Muslim world have cited the Quran stories to spark anti-U.S.
feeling. But reporters outside the United States have pointed
out that these demonstrations have not been spontaneous but were
well-organized, often by groups of students. The frustration
with U.S. policy that fuels these demonstrations isn’t limited
to the Quran incident, and to reduce the unrest to one magazine
story is misleading. Indeed, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a news conference last week
that the senior commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Carl Eichenberry,
reported that the violence “was not at all tied to the article
in the magazine.”

So, why the focus on the Newsweek story? It’s part of
the tried-and-true strategy of demonize, disguise, and divert.
Demonize the news media to disguise the real causes of the resistance
to occupation and divert attention from failed U.S. policies.

The irony is that the U.S. corporate news media deserve harsh
criticism for coverage of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
— not for possibly getting one fact wrong, but for failing to
consistently challenge the illegality of both wars and the various
distortions and lies that the Bush administration has used to
mobilize support for those illegal wars.

We should hold the news media accountable when they fail. But
we should defend journalists when they are used by political
partisans who are eager to obscure their own failures.

Robert Jensen is on the board and Pat Youngblood
is coordinator of the Third
Coast Activist Resource Center
in Austin, TX . They can be
reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu
and pat@thirdcoastactivist.org.

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