Information Warfare: May 17, 2005

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Newsweek magazine apologized for, and retracted,  a May 9th story about accusations that American interrogators in Guantanamo had desecrated the Koran in an attempt to get terrorist suspects to give up information. The accusations caused civil disorder in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and led to over a dozen deaths, and attacks on American troops. The accusations had been made by Guantanamo prisoners for over two years, but had not gained much traction. Islamic terrorists are known to frequently make unsubstantiated accusations, and their tendency to regularly go over the top hurts their credibility a great deal. 

Newsweek, like most American media, is known to have higher standards than al Qaeda propagandists. But not that high. Like al Qaeda and the Taliban, Newsweek needs appealing headlines to survive. With so much at stake, theres a tendency to avoid scrutinizing a hot story too closely. In most cases, a bad call causes a little embarrassment, and is quickly forgotten. But in this case you have dead people and putting American troops at risk. Actually, the Koran desecration story had been mentioned twice before in major American media (the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.) Nothing happened as a result, so maybe the Newsweek editor was confident that nothing bad would happen this time. But playing with fire will eventually lead to tragedy. The Newsweek story was picked up by a Pakistani politician, who made a lot of noise with it, that led to the deaths and unrest in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

The Taliban base their claim to power on religion. The Taliban is the defender of Islam, and the Newsweek story made Taliban recruiting easier. More guys with guns will now come out and join the groups of Taliban running around and fighting with American troops. Its called giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Its been a problem in every American war since the development of mass media (just before the American Civil War.) The media usually pleads ignorance to how these things play out. Often, this defense is valid. Its possible that the Newsweek reporters and editors working on this story were not aware of the effort American interrogators had made to prevent al Qaeda and Taliban suspects from painting Americans as anti-Moslem. Prisoners in Guantanamo were given Korans, chaplains and every opportunity to practice their religion. Newsweek wrote about this. The mythical prudent journalist would wonder why, after all this effort to keep religion out of the interrogation process, someone could get away with desecrating a Koran. But prudent journalism doesnt keep a newsmagazine in business. Even in wartime, some stories are too good to pass up, or scrutinize too closely. Survival is at stake. Its business.

It will happen again, although, for the moment, Journalists will now take the pledge to sin no more. But it wont last. It never does. Shown a big story, the temptation is always there to not look too closely, and just run with it. Its made worse by the growing number of media outlets, and the growing influence of entrepreneurial web media, especially blogs. Many journalists do try and check out these hot, but suspicious, stories, beyond getting government officials (who are as often as clueless as the people questioning them) to vouch for something. StrategyPage writers are regularly called by journalists, to comment about the veracity of interesting, but suspect, stories. Many such stories are promptly shot down, usually on the basis of obvious (to a historian or someone familiar with how the military operates) reasons. Too often, those calls are not made. Sometimes its because of deadline pressures, sometimes because the journalist does not want to see the story get discredited too soon. For a lot of these stories, theres a big upside, and not much of a downside. The news consumers dont have much of a collective memory. Journalists know that. Make a mistake, count the cash, make an apology and move on. 

Journalists also know that few stories make a lasting impression on a lot of people. How many people remember CNNs 1998 Tailwind story? This one asserted that American troops used nerve gas in Vietnam, to kill American soldiers who had defected to the enemy. CNN retracted the story when thousands of Vietnam veterans, journalists and military historians began to punch holes in it. 


Tailwind was a different matter, as it was a major TV news production. Thats just asking for it, if you are wrong. Tailwind probably couldnt happen today, the Internet allows too many people, knowledgeable people, to compare notes too quickly and instantly discredit something that doesnt pass the smell test. But the temptation remains, despite all those bloggers and experts lying in wait on the net. The game may have gotten more dangerous for journalists, but it isnt over, not if you want to remain employed as a journalist.

 


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