America - Andrew Stephen nails the Newsweek myth

We think we know the story: <em>Newsweek</em> reported - wrongly - that copies of the Koran were flu

Very few people, I wager, bothered to read a brief item that appeared in the "Periscope"section of Newsweek earlier this month. Trillions of years in journalism lead me to suspect that the original piece was much longer and was edited down to the 11 lacklustre sentences which were printed: the report repeated previous claims that US troops had flushed the Koran down toilets to upset Muslim prisoners, but added new information: that the allegation featured in internal army e-mails and was "expected in an upcoming report by the US Southern Command in Miami".

We know what happened next - or rather, we think we do. In the words of Bob Schieffer on CBS Evening News on 16 May, the Newsweek story "led to a week of violent anti-American demonstrations in Afghanistan, in which at least 15 people died". Donald Rumsfeld soon issued a characteristic rebuke, saying that "people need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be very careful about what they do".

The White House chief spokesman, Scott McLellan, weighed in about how "the report had real consequences . . . people have lost their lives". The media reporter of the Washington Post, which owns Newsweek, said the original item had been "an explosive story" that was "handled horribly". And even Mike Isikoff, Newsweek's "veteran investigative reporter" and one of the item's two authors, conceded that "it was terrible what happened". Newsweek retracted the story; admonishments from the appropriated moral high ground followed from the right, while the media cowered in collective acknowledgment that they had done wrong.

I have no information on whether or not the Koran was actually put down latrines but, if I had to guess, I would say that it probably did happen. We know from the photos, after all, that naked Muslim prisoners on all fours were led around on a dog collar and leash by female soldiers in Iraq, and that prisoners were tortured with fake electrodes and made to form piles of naked bodies. We know from court evidence that interrogators smeared fake menstrual blood on Muslim prisoners, and we know from reading one of his own memos that Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, as US commander in Iraq, officially ordained that dogs should be used to "exploit Arab fear of dogs".

Besides the religious humiliations, we know that prisoners have perished at the hands of their guards. We can be confident, too, that all this would have been flatly denied had there not been such incontrovertible proof.

So if a little abuse of the Koran was thrown in, who could possibly be surprised? Though experience also leads me to have little faith in "veteran investigative reporters", I tend to believe Isikoff when he says the report came from a trusted government source who has always been accurate in the past.

But Newsweek made itself vulnerable: instead of just saying that the desecration of the Koran had happened, it insisted that an account of it would appear in a Pentagon document that had yet to be finalised. In other words, it handed all the power over whether its account was accurate to the Pentagon. In this way, the Koran-down-the-toilet story became a triumph for the Bush administration. Not unreasonably, Americans do not want to read every day that their troops are mistreating prisoners in depraved ways, and this apparent clanger dropped by Newsweek offered an excuse to blame the media and lay to rest the legion legitimate stories of prisoner abuse, now being discarded as a result.

A watershed has thus been reached, all as a result of clever media manipulation by the administration, but it could not have worked out so beautifully without the timorous co-operation of the media. The mainstream news organisations dutifully reported that riots and deaths resulted from the Newsweek report, with Schieffer and CBS - supposedly the most "liberal" network, but now furiously trying to counteract this image - presenting it as undisputed fact.

By now, the notion has been infiltrated into the media's bloodstream so thoroughly that it is impossible to eradicate. General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said quietly, a week or so after Newsweek appeared, that his commander on the ground in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, had reported that the riots were planned before Newsweek appeared. Little attention was paid.

On 23 May, Hamid Karzai himself spoke out. Standing beside President Bush in the White House, the president of Afghanistan said baldly: "Those demonstrations were, in reality, not related to the Newsweek story."

This time, even less attention was paid. So few reporters attended this joint Bush-Karzai press conference that White House interns had to be hurriedly drafted in to fill the empty seats.

And by then America had moved on.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Why Oxfam is failing Africa

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.