Monday, May 16, 2005

THE HEAVY HITTERS on the left side of the blogosphere have started to weigh in on the Newsweek Periscope brief that has sparked a full-scale demolition campaign by the Bush administration.

Kevin Drum says that the White House's outrage reeks of hyperbole, dishonesty, and hypocrisy.

I note that the conservative blogosphere, usually not one for root causes and blame shifting, is pretty unanimously convinced that last week's riots in Afghanistan are Newsweek's fault, because they began shortly after the Koran flushing story made it into the Arabic language press. You might demur, thinking that the rioters themselves are to blame for their rioting, and the conservo-sphere would normally agree. They didn't blame Paul Bremer for last year's uprising in Najaf, after all. But not this time. The opportunity to bash the press is just too enticing.
Anyway, let's get some things straight:

Newsweek's source blew it. But it was a source they had used before and they had no reason not to trust him.

Hundreds of items similar to Newsweek's story have been published in the past year, all of them true. The torture at Abu Ghraib was far worse than this, and other reports of Koran desecration have been published in the past year as well. They inspired no riots, and there was no special reason for Newsweek to think their report would inspire any riots either.

The Taliban stages a resurgence every spring, anti-Americanism has been on the rise for some time, and the rioters in Afghanistan are responsible for the riots in Afghanistan. The Newsweek story is clearly just a pretext, and another story would have done just as well given their obvious animosity toward America.

Under any other circumstances, conservatives would heartily agree. The phony outrage over this is just a cynical excuse for the usual press bashing. Newsweek should buck up.

As near as I can tell, the Pentagon has demonstrated more genuine outrage over this incident than they did over months and months of disclosures of similar (and worse) actions at Abu Ghraib. It's revolting.

Juan Cole points out that the Bush administration is using Newsweek's clarifying statement that the allegations of Koran desecration came from another set of documents, not from the SouthCom report, as a device to impugn the accuracy of the information itself.

The Pentagon has claimed that the incident did not occur. Although the corporate media are now reporting that Newsweek had "backed off" the report, that isn't true.

Newsweek explains that in response to Pentagon queries,

"On Saturday, Isikoff spoke to his original source, the senior government official, who said that he clearly recalled reading investigative reports about mishandling the Qur'an, including a toilet incident. But the official, still speaking anonymously, could no longer be sure that these concerns had surfaced in the SouthCom report."

Isikoff's source, in other words, stands by his report of the incident, but is merely tracing it to other paperwork. What difference does that make? Although Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita angrily denounced the source as no longer credible, in the real world you can't just get rid of a witness because the person made a minor mistake with regard to a text citation. It is like saying that we can't be sure someone has really read the Gospels because he said he read about Caiaphas in the Gospel of Mark rather than in the Gospel of John.

Newsweek has, in other words, confirmed that the source did read a US government account of the desecration of the Koran.

Arthur Silber at The Light of Reason, in a very well-argued post, tells us that what the Bush administration is really doing here is laying the groundwork for censorship.

What I want to emphasize right now is the speed and ambitiousness of the propagandists’ game here. In less than a day, they have targeted all of these issues, using the Newsweek mistake (if indeed it was one) as their freshest ammunition:

— Minimizing to the point of non-existence all abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib

— Minimizing to the point of non-existence all abuse and torture at Guantanamo

— Reinforcing the idea that the mainstream media is not to be trusted on matters of national security, and that it is fundamentally anti-American

— Introducing the idea that “some people” think the media has finally gone “too far,” which carries the unavoidable implication that SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!

So what is the logical result of all this? There are at least two major results, and two major goals: first, strengthening the idea that, whatever the United States does, it is always right and anyone who questions our policies is wrong, and anti-American—and if we do make any mistakes, they are trivial and barely worth mentioning, thus trying yet again to shut down all debate; and second, if the Bush supporters and warhawks had their way, censorship.

Censorship is what they’re after, and don’t let them tell you otherwise. They announced this goal unmistakably at least a year ago. (Here’s the classic, regret-filled formulation: “And here’s a question: Freedom of the press, as it exists today (and didn’t exist, really, until the 1960s) is unlikely to survive if a majority—or even a large and angry minority—of Americans comes to conclude that the press is untrustworthy and unpatriotic. How far are we from that point?”) Of course, they “regret” that censorship might be necessary. It’s a terrible shame and all that. But damn it, if magazines like Newsweek ARE GOING TO GET PEOPLE KILLED…well, what can we do? We obviously have to shut them up. They brought it on themselves. It’s their own damned fault. Of course, we’d like to have a free press, but THEY’RE GETTING PEOPLE KILLED!

And please, please don’t say it can’t happen here. It did happen here—during World War I and World War II. They want to go back to the good old days, when people got thrown in jail for reading the Bill of Rights in public.

Of course, to make this case successfully, one has to ignore, as Kos puts it, "another series of stories, based on lies, that are STILL getting people killed in a country half a world away." Silber elaborates on this:

I fully expect the Newsweek story to be all-consuming over the next week, at the very least. It will be dissected endlessly on talk radio, on cable TV, in newspapers. And throughout all the discussions, the points identified above will be emphasized without end, so that all these ideas become more widely accepted by more and more Americans: that the riots were “caused” by the Newsweek story, that the mainstream press is basically anti-American and not to be trusted, and that something might finally have to be done. That would be terrible, but that rotten, traitorous mainstream media just didn’t give us decent, patriotic Americans a choice, did it?

That’s how this game is played, and those are the stakes. Meanwhile, and speaking of lies and people dying, there is one story that will continue to be entirely neglected during all of this comparatively trivial public psychosis: this one. Note this page in particular.

Now there’s an outright lie that unquestionably did lead to an untold number of deaths (in fact, a very lengthy series of outright lies)—and it continues to lead to more deaths every single day. But is the media, including the warbloggers, devoting any time and attention to that? Of course not. That might reflect badly on Saint George.

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