Newsweek used a word last month that no one in this business likes to use: "Retraction."
The magazine withdrew a story it published -- a short blurb in its "Periscope" section -- that said US military authorities were about to release a report verifying that interrogators at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran "down the toilet in an attempt to rattle detainees." The story, which ran in the May 9 edition of the magazine, had one source, an unnamed official that the magazine had found credible in the past.
A chain reaction followed. First, there were sharp denunciations in Pakistan and then riots in Afghanistan that resulted in the death of at least 15 people. Then Newsweek's source pulled back, refusing to confirm the story, forcing Newsweek to disavow what it had published.
That allowed the White House spin machine to go on the attack.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered an ominous rejoinder to the magazine -- and everyone in the American media -- saying, "People need to be careful what they say, just as people need to be careful what they do."
And Press Secretary Scott McClellan offered Newsweek a lesson in journalistic ethics when, before the magazine offered its retraction, he told reporters, "It's puzzling that while Newsweek now acknowledges that they got the facts wrong, they refused to retract the story. I think there's a certain journalistic standard that should be met and in this instance it was not."
The Newsweek error and its reliance on unnamed sources played out in the media as just another example of irresponsibility or ineptitude on the part of journalists, giving the profession another black eye and beginning a necessary debate within the industry over when and whether to use unnamed sources for stories.
But there has always been more to this story than the journalism angle -- as announcements by the Pentagon and FBI at the end of May reminded us. The key to the story is not Newsweek's mistake, but the series of allegations about prisoner abuse at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan -- allegations that have resulted in court martials of several reservists. This is what allowed a paragraph-long blurb in an American newsweekly to gain traction.
An editorial in the Boulder (Colo.) Daily Camera attempted to place the Newsweek errors in perspective. The magazine's "harshest critics are denying the obvious," it said in May. "What damaged this country's image abroad was its own well-documented abuse of detainees in the war on terrorism, not one magazine's flawed reporting on one element of the abuse."
The Daily Camera took the magazine's critics to task, reminding readers that protestations by the administration were fairly disingenuous.
"(N)o one can pretend any longer that the US military simply would not engage in abuse and torture -- not after the conviction of several participants in the Abu Ghraib atrocities, at least two dozen deaths attributed to torture and plain evidence that the White House condones tactics prohibited by the Geneva conventions when dealing with unlawful combatants."
And the editorial ran about two weeks before FBI documents surfaced showing that detainees at the Cuba prison said they had been beaten and that several also complained about mistreatment of the Koran -- including an allegation that, as the Washington Post reported, guards had "flushed a Koran in the toilet."
Shortly after the FBI reports surfaced, "Pentagon officials said investigators "identified five incidents of mishandling the Koran by military guards and investigators," E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote in a column.
As Dionne points out, the late-May revelations were just reports of allegations, while Newsweek had reported confirmed abuse.
"But it's also clear, to be charitable, that not all was well in Guantanamo," he wrote. "That's why the administration and its apologists went bonkers over the Newsweek story."
It became, as I said, about Newsweek and not about Abu Ghraib, letting the administration off the hook. As with Dan Rather and 60 Minutes, the focus on the magazine's mishap spun the story 180 degrees, allowing President Bush and his cronies to slide off the hook.
Rather than gnash our teeth over the mistakes of Newsweek, we should be looking far more closely into the interrogation methods of the American military.
Hank Kalet is a poet and newspaper editor in central New Jersey. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.