The mainstream media often denounce conservative criticism of Islam as “inflammatory.” Then they make sure it is inflammatory by broadcasting the criticism in tabloid form to the ends of the earth so that Muslims will be properly inflamed. A few years ago, for example, Jerry Falwell’s critique of Islam as a violent religion was beamed to the Muslim world by media outlets very deeply concerned about Muslim-Christian concord, and bloody riots followed. Falwell had provoked the riots, the media piously reported even as they happily stoked them.
The oh-so-irenic media seem to delight in inflaming Muslims by letting them know what America has said or done that should inflame them. The media express anger that George Bush has “alienated” the Muslim world while they simultaneously distort what Bush has done in the war on terrorism so as to guarantee that alienation.
This is a very cynical game, and it has caught up with at least one publication now, Newsweek. Its editors, expecting to spend this week castigating the Bush administration for causing discord in the Muslim world by permitting anti-Islamic abuse at its Guantanamo Bay detention facilities, had to admit that their false report about U.S. military interrogators’ desecration of the Koran sparked rioting across the Middle East. But like Dan Rather, Newsweek is allowing itself an array of defenses it would never extend to the conservatives it covers.
Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, in his post-mortem on the debacle this week, “How a Fire Broke Out,” dusts off a defense Dan Rather tried, which we can call the-subject-whom-we-were-smearing-didn’t-correct-us defense. Remember Rather’s crack research team assumed that the Bush White House’s mute response to its preview of the forged National Guard documents was confirmation of their validity. Evan Thomas, using this new species of journalistic accuracy testing, writes a bit peevishly that Newsweek had “provided a draft of the NEWSWEEK PERISCOPE item to a Senior Defense official, asking, ‘Is this accurate or not?'” Thomas writes that the official was “silent” on the portion of the item alleging that Guantanamo Bay interrogators had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. This is Newsweek‘s way of saying: hey, don’t get mad at us, we showed due diligence.
See, this too can be blamed on the Bush administration. It turns out that the Bush administration does a very sloppy job of editing smear jobs of it that the media generously allow it to examine before publication. The Bush administration could have saved Rather from himself by saying, “Dan, you are going forward with a forgery.” But it just callously let him use it. And now that the administration didn’t save Newsweek from itself by editing its previewed Periscope item about how their interrogators flush the Koran down toilets at Guantanamo Bay it looks like this callousness has hardened into habit.
EVAN THOMAS ROLLS OUT another defense, one often seen after a publication has been caught out in a disastrous story that it first tried to present as an exclusive, and that is the we-didn’t-publish-this-false-story-first defense. Journalistic scoops that turn out badly suddenly aren’t scoops anymore but just previously reported information. Here’s Thomas: “Newsweek was not the first to report allegations of desecrating the Qur’an. As early as last spring and summer, similar reports from released detainees started surfacing in British and Russian news reports, and in the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera; claims by other released detainees have been covered in other media since then.”
In other words, the Muslims should have rioted earlier? Or maybe Newsweek is saying that last week’s rioting was opportunistic, the work of fanatical Muslims eagerly looking for Western offenses as a pretext for violence? The latter explanation would bring Newsweek dangerously close to a position its multicultural sensitivities forbid: a refusal to excuse Islamic violence as a legitimate reaction to Western criticism or practice.
That’s not a position the media allow just anyone to take. If Jerry Falwell says that Islam contains an element of violence in it and Muslims validate that critique by rioting, the media blame the riots on Falwell and absolve the rioters of responsibility. But if an obviously enlightened person like Salman Rushdie or publication like Newsweek are the provokers, the media don’t show quite the same level of sympathy for Muslim rioters.
Evan Thomas, signaling that Newsweek (despite its editor’s mea culpa) considers the riots an inexcusable, irrational response to its report, writes that “extremist agitators are at least partly to blame.” So don’t expect next week on Newsweek ‘s who’s up, who’s down Periscope chart, an up arrow for militant Islam.