Newsweek, the Pentagon and Fact-Checking

Friday, May 27, 2005

Newsweek, the Pentagon and Fact-Checking

Did Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker issue this recent "mea culpa" prematurely?
Last Friday, a top Pentagon spokesman told us that a review of the probe cited in our story showed that it was never meant to look into charges of Qur'an desecration. The spokesman also said the Pentagon had investigated other desecration charges by detainees and found them "not credible." ... we regret that we got any part of our story wrong ...
If Newsweek's report was false, then we now know that the statements of this Pentagon spokesman were equally false, possibly more so. Whitaker was told by the Pentagon that "other (koran) desecration charges" were judged by the Pentagon to be "not credible." But according to this morning's Washington Post:
Pentagon officials said yesterday that investigators have identified five incidents of military guards and an interrogator "mishandling" the Koran at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but characterized the episodes as minor ...

Of the five cases of mishandling, three were "very likely" deliberate and two were "very likely accidental," he said. But (Brigadier Gen. Jay) Hood declined to provide details, citing an ongoing investigation.
So after telling us that none of the allegations about koran desecration were credible -- not Newsweek's or any of the others -- the Pentagon now admits that there were at least five incidents. We're told that the incidents of desecration were "minor," but one questions whether the same people who dismissed any reports of desecration can be trusted to accurately characterize the nature of that desecration.

But don't expect the conservative commentators who attacked Newsweek for failing to do its fact-checking to level a similar attack on the Pentagon. (However inadequate Newsweek's fact-checking may have been, the confirmation of these five incidents of desecration suggests that it's quite possible that an incident much like that reported by the magazine did happen at Guantanamo.)

Journalists shouldn't make assertions without first checking their facts. But should we expect anything less from the Pentagon?

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