On Point

Newsweek Meets 21st Century War

by Austin Bay
May 18, 2005

It was classic "media gotcha," using the "Vietnam and Watergate" storyline of "United States bad, Third World good" -- but the phony story led to riots, deaths and an embarrassing retraction.

I'm referring, of course, to Newsweek's "Koran flushing" story, which ran in the magazine's May 1 edition.

The sin of greed creeps into every scandal, and it lurks behind this tragic incident. Newsweek wants "market share," and hot stories grab readers.

But profit generated by a frantic "me first" quest isn't the only motive. The "Vietnam-Watergate" press template is also involved. "Vietnam-Watergate" is a tired and phony game, but for three decades it's been the spine of the New York-Washington-Los Angeles media axis. Its rules are simple and cynical. Presume the U.S. government is lying -- particularly when the president is a Republican. Presume the worst about the U.S. military -- even when the president is a Democrat. Add multicultural icing -- allegations by "Third World victims" are given revered status, while U.S. statements are met with arrogant contempt. (Yes, it's the myth of the Noble Savage recast.)

Wake up. There's a war going on -- a global war. American lives and liberty are at stake, but Newsweek and its clan are still trying to "Get Nixon."

Newsweek's editors haven't entered the 21st century. Anti-American propagandists -- and that includes Al Qaeda -- have used Gitmo and Abu Ghraib as emotional/political weapons. Responsible reporting must take that into account. News organizations will ultimately lose credibility if they fail to factor the Al Qaeda propaganda angle in their reports on Gitmo and Abu Ghraib.

Yes, this makes for a more complicated story, but we are engaged in an intricate, complex war on an intricate, complex planet.

There's also an odd but apt comparison between Newsweek's fiasco and the Pentagon's initially slow response to Abu Ghraib. When evaluating Abu Ghraib allegations, Don Rumsfeld was operating with a 1970s' "paper information template." To Rumsfeld, "pictures" of Pfc. England with a dog leash meant snapshots on paper marked "Kodak." Rumsfeld didn't realize his young troops shoot digital photos that in 10 seconds "go global" on the Internet.

I suspect Newsweek's bosses were operating on a "paper template," the legacy of their own formative era, where their "print product" reached readers via the postman. In this "template," a press allegation remains largely "local," or U.S.-bound, and if it's wrong it's easily retracted (or covered up). Despite calling itself a "global news organization," this "Koran flushing" article was clearly aimed at the U.S. domestic audience.

However, there is no "over there" in our world, not anymore. We live in a world where everyone is -- in terms of information -- next door.

Rumsfeld and Newsweek were both handling volatile allegations with a restricted view of the audience (a 1970s, U.S.-oriented template) and a poor appreciation of the allegations' impact.

We have enemies looking for "operational opportunities" on a global scale. Al Qaeda has sympathizers who are cued to react to Western news reports that "insult Islam." The "fifth-columnist" throws the first stone. If he can get a couple of bored teenage boys to throw a second and third stone, he's done his job. Al Qaeda gets another "the Muslim street is angry" story and perhaps a bloodbath.

Is this a fanciful scenario? Indian military analyst Bahukutumbi Raman claimed the Afghan riot riots in the wake of the Newsweek phony story were incited by "well-organized agents of the Hizb ut-Tahrir terror gang."

Welcome, Newsweek, to the 21st century -- and 21st century war.

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