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TUESDAY, MAY 17, 2005
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EDITORIAL

Newsweek's Quran article undermines journalism

With the unique freedom enjoyed by the press in this nation comes a grave responsibility. Newsweek came up short.

In its May 9 issue, Newsweek reported that U.S. investigators found evidence confirming that interrogators flushed a Quran down a toilet as part of its effort to get Muslim inmates at Guantanamo Bay to talk.

"Sources tell Newsweek: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, placed Qurans on toilets and, in at least one case, flushed a holy book down the toilet," said the article by Michael Isikoff and John Barry.

Lower in the article Newsweek readers read, "Given the complaints, sources say, investigators say he should have known what was happening — and acted to try to prevent it."

The article attributed the allegations to "sources," but a not-quite-apologetic explanation from Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker on Sunday said the information came from "a knowledgeable U.S. government source." Still no explanation as to why the source seemed credible, and also no explanation as to when the plural "sources" turned into a single "source."

There are times when anonymous sources are unavoidable, but as the possible harm from a misstatement increases, journalists' willingness to rely on an anonymous — and therefore unaccountable — source should decrease.

The harm here was immense and entirely foreseeable. Fifteen people died in Afghanistan during protests triggered by the article and scores were injured.

There is another harm, too. Many argue that reporters should muzzle themselves rather than report incidents that could provoke America's wartime enemies. The issue played out in at least two situations. Reports on the Abu Ghraib prison abuse no doubt cost the lives of U.S. troops. As did the report of a journalist who witnessed a U.S. soldier execute a bound man.

But those journalists got their facts right. The issue of whether reporters are competent to accurately report such damaging reports was not a part of the debate. Newsweek's article justifiably will infuriate readers who watch soldiers die not from a free press, but from a shoddy one.

The legacy of Newsweek's mistake will handicap responsible journalists long after Afghanistan is a footnote in U.S. history books.

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