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