May 17, 2005

Missing the point entirely.

That's not exactly news when we're talking about the 'mainstream' media in the US. And, as an excellent piece by Brian Montopoli points out, missing the point is the big story in how the media is covering the Newsweek scandal.

To begin with, the press is getting the basic fact of the retraction wrong: Newsweek didn't retract the report that the Koran had been put in a toilet at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The magazine only retracted its claim that its report was supported by information from the US military's Southern Command. As Montopoli notes, there have been a number of credible reports of this exact kind of Koran desecration that have come out of Guantanmo over the past three years. So it's no surprise that Newsweek didn't say that no descecration took place — the magazine only withdrew its claim that a report being submitted to the Southern Command contained information about such descration. This is a big difference, kids.

The failure of the press to make this distinction about the distraction has played right into the hands of Dubya's spin masters:

Consider another central issue: whether Newsweek's premature report actually spurred the riots. Thanks to the White House spin, and the media's lazy reporting, the conventional wisdom is now that it did. But the reality is that it probably did not, at least in any significant sense. According to a statement last Thursday by General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, after hearing from commanders on the scene in Afghanistan, the "rioting was related more to the ongoing political reconciliation process in Afghanistan than anything else." As we've noted, that makes sense, based on the Taliban's past patterns and the fact that previous reports about Koran desecration at Guantanamo spurred no such riots. But the press has repeatedly failed to make that clear....

All this is particularly galling considering how much play the story is getting on the cable networks. It's not as if there isn't ample time to explain the facts to the viewers. Instead, Fox News, which we've had our eye on over the past couple days, has repeatedly stressed the fact that the White House feels that Newsweek's apology isn't enough, since, as White House press secretary Scott McClellan put it, "The report had real consequences. People have lost their lives. Our image abroad has been damaged."

It's easy to imagine why the White House is taking this approach. As a Newsweek journalist told the Los Angeles Times — speaking, ironically, from a position of anonymity — "The issue of how prisoners are treated at Guantanamo has not gone away. Now they want to deflect that by talking about how irresponsible Newsweek magazine was."

What's harder to explain is why reporters covering the story have swallowed this red herring. But let's try: Producers, it seems, would rather stir viewers' emotions that provide them with the truth. The story, in its oversimplified form, plays well into television news' longstanding bias towards conflict. It's Newsweek vs. the government, the liberal media vs. conservatives, and, for some, overeager advocacy journalists vs. America.

Via CJR Daily.

Posted by Magpie at May 17, 2005 03:32 PM | Media | Technorati links |