Show of Farce


This would seem to be one of those moments in American history when satire becomes obsolete. It’s because our national dialogue has itself become a full-blown, round-the-clock farce. The White House and the press are major players. Exhibit A: Newsweek made a telling error recently by publishing a story that lacked proper confirmation—about American military jailers desecrating the Koran to break down their Muslim prisoners. A week or so later, Islamic protest riots partly related to the story left at least 15 people dead in Afghanistan.

The Bush White House, suffering a yawning credibility gap from the Iraq war plus a global wave of anti-American sentiment, leaped on the press mistake and, even after a Newsweek apology and retraction, said the magazine should go further and “repair the damage” by “speaking out” about American values to the Muslim world. “The values that the United States stands for . . . the values we hold so dearly,” as Bush spokesman Scott McClellan put it.

Reasonable citizens could not be blamed for rolling their eyes at such an exhortation. Indeed, what values has the Bush administration stood for and paraded before the world? For one, it can no longer be sanely disputed that this president led the nation into the Iraq war on a platform of false information. No stockpiles of “weapons of mass destruction” were found in Iraq. There was no imminent threat. Bush hailed our soldiers as heroes, but he sent them into battle without proper body armor or armored vehicles and without a large enough force or any real plan for restoring order after Saddam Hussein was ousted. Avoidable casualties have been the result. And the continuing scandal about the torture of Muslim prisoners needn’t have happened at all if the White House had sent properly trained and disciplined units to run the detention centers.

Just what values does the loyal Mr. McClellan think all these policies and practices and behavior add up to? Does he really think we should present this list to the world as the sum of what America stands for?

Newsweek erred and has been deeply embarrassed and shaken. Unlike the president and his band, the press does make mistakes and, at least in the present era, it owns up to them.

But this story is much larger than a Newsweek article that may have contributed to unforeseen yet nasty mayhem. Our whole country is in an embarrassed and embarrassing state. We are deeply divided—fractured may be a truer word. People are uncertain and nervous about the future, yet the White House and its Republican-controlled Congress regularly paper over the war and serious domestic problems with little more than advertising slogans. And now the voters, from their separated clans and interest groups and political fraternities, scream epithets at each other—it’s as if we have nothing in common as Americans.

The press is very much a part of this national dissonance. Over the past few decades, it gradually depreciated itself and dug its own hole. Even as the digital revolution enhanced reporters’ fact-finding abilities and produced better investigative, serious journalism, the profession in other ways allowed itself to grow softer and looser. Gossip and celebrity chitchat crept into the news sections. We began covering the sex lives of public figures even when we could not demonstrate that their private indiscretions had any effect on their public performance or public policy. Remember the Miami Herald stakeout in 1987 at Gary Hart’s townhouse that revealed his marital infidelity and ousted him from the presidential race? That was a landmark in the press’s slippery slide. News became more like a game. It was entertainment. Later, of course, we gave the world the Monica saga of sex in the White House. Michael Isikoff, co-author of the Newsweek article currently in dispute, was a major unearther of the lubricious details back then. In devoting such investigative energy and resources to a love-nest story, the press took resources away from matters that actually have a tangible effect on American lives.

The press’s proprietors and editors (some of the latter, to their credit, winced as they participated) told us that this was the necessary path to the future if we were to survive financially. They said we had to enliven newspapers and news on television so we could capture those 18- to 49-year-olds and thus draw the big advertisers who yearned to sell them things. “Get jiggy with it!” they told the newsroom doubters.

Almost without noticing, the press began losing its memory about its crucial adversary role. At America’s beginning, the founding fathers, in establishing the fundamentals of this democracy, said a free press was necessary as one of the country’s checks and balances. That explains John Peter Zenger and Thomas Paine and the First Amendment.

As amnesia about our history spread, the major news companies began making deals with the government. In 1991, you may recall, they agreed to accept the Pentagon’s ground rules for covering the first Gulf war. The rules decreed that reporters had to be accompanied at all times by military babysitters who would not only select the story sites but pre-interview soldiers at those sites to avoid any lapses into truth telling. And that was how America, on television and in print, was handed its first major sanitized war. Another landmark. (The father of the current president was in the Oval Office then. Dick Cheney was the Pentagon chief.)

Journalists used to come largely from the “outsider” precincts of our culture. They were children of immigrants and working people, raised simply, not prone to cozying up to power or accommodating power. That’s because the press was supposed to be a watchdog on power on behalf of the public. That has changed—not completely, but it has changed. At times now, too many reporters seem to be channeling Dickens’s Oliver Twist, with their bowls outstretched toward their government minders, asking: “Please, sir, may I have some more gruel?”

Finally, into the era of press compliance stepped a presidency that had imperial ambitions and imperious ways. One of those ways is lockstep secrecy. The Bush White House’s golden rule goes something like this: Jolly the press, but tell them nothing but boilerplate; hide from them anything embarrassing and anything that might give them evidence of our mistakes and fallibility. It’s a little bit like a monarchy, which America thought it had shed two centuries ago. Like the first one (the reign of King George III), this one too is non-benevolent.

Facing this extreme choke hold, the Washington press corps has begun to resist, finally. The rest of us in the press should back them solidly and stand up as professionals to bring about strong change, not lip service. We are in a fight for old established principles. The nation as a whole is in the same fight, though it does not fully realize it yet.

Some people say the national cacophony is merely a season of bitter partisan jousting between Democrats and Republicans. In rebuttal, I believe the evidence is strong that the Bush government has perverted important American traditions. I believe the press, too, fell into a perversion. We welcomed the anointing of journalists as celebrities and over time sowed other bad seeds as well. The harvest was Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, Stephen Glass, and a laundry list of other fabricators and corner-cutters who flourished under loosened standards. Some of the country’s top newspaper editors gave this explanation: The Internet had created a 24-hour news cycle that inflamed the news business’s competitive fever and left the editorial gatekeepers little time to winnow out the chaff and the misreporting. There’s some truth in their words about the arrival of an unending news cycle. But the rest of the rationale won’t wash. The devil didn’t make us do it.

The river of press scandals has brought about change. Ombudspersons have multiplied at newspapers. The screening of copy has tightened up. The use of “anonymous sources” has been reduced. (Newsweek, in “A Letter to Our Readers” in its latest issue, lays out its stricter newsroom standards.) But the press remains under siege, under a microscope, trying to rebuild the people’s confidence in what they read in the paper and what they’re told on television.

The struggle with the Bush White House and its acolytes will also be a hard slog. They cling to an ideological view and concede nothing to those who have different beliefs. Nonetheless, the press, if it doesn’t want to become the national piñata, will have to clean up its house and vigorously fight for its traditional role in this democracy.

To get an idea of how the Bush government deals with the press and public, let’s take a look at how it handled the original Newsweek article, which was 354 words long and ran in the Periscope section in the May 9 issue. The reference to desecration of Islam’s holy book said: “Among the previously unreported cases [of abuse at the Guantánamo Bay detention center], sources tell Newsweek: Interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur’an down a toilet . . . ” The article went on to say this incident and other findings were “expected in an upcoming report by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami . . . ”

Newsweek‘s editor, Mark Whitaker, says that before deciding to publish the item, “we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute the Qur’an charge.” The other “aspect,” Newsweek says, was corrected before publication.

More than a week passed before the Pentagon complained about the Koran reference. In a news story in its May 18 edition, The New York Times wrote that the Pentagon spokesman, Lawrence Di Rita, “said that the military was still reviewing whether there had been any incidents of Koran abuse at the [Guantánamo] prison.” Di Rita was quoted as saying: “We’ve not previously included [the issue of Koran desecration] in any kind of previous investigations into detainee operations, because there haven’t been credible allegations to that effect.” He added that “there have been instances, and we’ll have more to say about it as we learn more, but where a Koran may have fallen to the floor in the course of searching a cell.”

When Newsweek went back to its original source (there was only one, contrary to the citation of “sources” in the original item), the person, described as a senior government official who had been reliable in the past, said he could no longer be certain he saw that Koran reference in the Southern Command report. He said he might have read it elsewhere.

Other articles alleging Koran desecration by American interrogators have appeared in the press here and abroad. The March issue of Harper’s, for example, carried an account given by a former Afghan detainee to a Daniel Rothenberg, identified as a human rights researcher. The former prisoner recounted many abuses including the following:

” . . . Then they would throw the Holy Koran on the ground or drop it in the latrine. This made us very upset.”

In summary, similar allegations, based on prisoner accounts, have been aired by the International Committee of the Red Cross and others. The Pentagon’s position is that its rules against mishandling the Koran are stringent and that these prisoners are lying to foment trouble.

The Pentagon has so far declined to make public the Southern Command report. The White House has still never apologized for, or retracted, its false claims about weapons of mass destruction and imminent threat.

Those are the sounds of secrecy. They are not quiet things. They are the wild, unloosed sounds of the inmates in full control of the asylum.