Hoover Daily Report

Newsweek, Facts and Evidence

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

I have often told students in my Media Law and Ethics class that even as a professional journalist I consider myself lucky for having attended law rather than journalism school. Journalists are trained to appreciate facts, whereas lawyers demand evidence. A journalist might print or broadcast information that a lawyer would never dream of introducing as evidence because the court would hold that its prejudicial impact exceeds its probative value.

That seemed to me the basic problem with the Newsweek telescope item predicting that a military investigation would conclude that Guantanamo Bay interrogators had flushed one detainee's Koran down a toilet. Even if true, the item revealed no pattern of religious or even Koran abuse, no widespread breakdown in troop discipline in contrast to the disgraceful military conduct at Abu Ghraib prison, no systemic excess as with the alleged deaths of twenty-seven Iraqis while in U.S. custody. The 300-word piece was thus of negligible probative value. Nevertheless, it packed enormous prejudicial impact; that the story was false added a touch of irony to the tragedy of deadly riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The real Koran story in Iraq has nothing to do with mistreatment of the book. Rather, it has to do with crimes against humanity committed in Iraq every day inspired by the Prophet's word. In the name of redeeming Islam, jihadists steal across Iraq's borders intent on murder, kidnapping, and other acts of barbarism. Together with homegrown insurgents, they plant bombs along heavily traveled roads, attack schools and marketplaces, seize and murder civilians, target the country's infrastructure, and blow themselves apart after penetrating the largest crowds of innocents they can find.

Their enemies are democracy, modernity, equality for women, cultural licentiousness, and any version of religion save their own. The qualities they hate most are embodied in the United States, a nation of diversity, tolerance, and the secular rule of law. Many jihadists are armed spiritually with the latest fatwah licensing their deed, extolling their sacrifice, praising the blow they have struck against enemies of Allah, assuring them a place in heaven.

Even more to the point, where are the Islamic dissenters? Where are those who we are told represent the sweetness of the Koran, its inner humanism, the jihad connoting the struggle of the soul for virtue rather than the thirst of the warrior for death? Where, in short, are the voices of Islamic enlightenment? And why do the most prominent among them speak so often from London and so rarely from Riyadh, Cairo, Tehran, Damascus, or even Amman.

The real story of Koran debasement is there for the telling, much of it in Iraq were the media are better able to shelve their propensity to disparage the U.S. effort, more often treating atrocity as operational success than as evidence of the insurgents' inhumanity. Perhaps, as some suggest, the media's mind-set harkens back to Vietnam with its phony body counts and spurious claims of progress. I disagree. Rather, it was the failure to find weapons of mass destruction coupled with planning errors allowing the insurgency to gain traction after the war was "won" that created a media environment polluted with cynicism and mistrust. In such an environment it is easy for facts to get in the way of evidence.