by James Taranto
opinionjournal.com

An editorial in the Arab News, a Saudi English-language newspaper, vouches for the high journalistic standards of an American newsmagazine:

The US weekly “Newsweek” is a highly reputable and responsible publication, rarely prone to making mistakes. So when it reports, as it has done, that copies of the Koran were desecrated at the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, people will believe the story. People in the Muslim world certainly do. The anger it has stirred up in Afghanistan has left a trail of death and destruction. Incensed at the blasphemy, Afghans have lashed out in fury in all directions. The fact that not only government and UN buildings were burned but even mosques shows the depths of their rage. The same level public anger has been reported from Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt and many other Muslim countries.

Whoops! It turns out the story–which according to Reuters, provoked rioting in Afghanistan that has killed at least 16—wasn’t true, as Newsweek now acknowledges:

Late last week Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita told Newsweek that its original story was wrong. The brief Periscope item (“SouthCom Showdown”) had reported on the expected results of an upcoming U.S. Southern Command investigation into the abuse of prisoners at Gitmo. According to Newsweek, SouthCom investigators found that Gitmo interrogators had flushed a Koran down a toilet in an attempt to rattle detainees. While various released detainees have made allegations about Koran desecration, the Pentagon has, according to DiRita, found no credible evidence to support them.

Reuters quotes Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker: “We’re not saying it absolutely happened but we can’t say that it absolutely didn’t happen either.” Andrew Sullivan, who has long had a peculiar preoccupation with “torture” tales, endorses the fake-but-accurate standard of journalism: “I reiterate what I wrote Saturday: ‘Even if this incident turns out to be false, our previous policies have made it perfectly plausible.’ That’s the deeper issue here.”

Glenn Reynolds gets it right:

If [Newsweek] had wrongly reported the race of a criminal and produced a lynching, they’d feel much worse–which is why they generally don’t report such things, a degree of sensitivity they don’t extend to reporting on, you know, minor topics like wars…. People died, and U.S. military and diplomatic efforts were damaged, because—let’s be clear here—Newsweek was too anxious to get out a story that would make the Bush Administration and the military look bad.

Journalists have to make myriad judgment calls, and this is far from the first time a news organization has jumped the gun and reported information that turned out to be false—though usually the consequences aren’t so bloody. But it’s fair to say this is an example of “adversary” journalism getting out of control. Reporters are not agents of the government, but it wouldn’t hurt if, at least during wartime, they were restrained by some sense of patriotism.