A Tragedy of Errors-Six Words That Roiled the World
It has been a big year (so far) for public relations catastrophes and crisis management. But no story can compare with Newsweek's huge gaffe when investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry wrote the following in the Periscope column in the May 9, 2005, Newsweek:
Among the previously unreported cases, sources tell NEWSWEEK: interrogators, in an attempt to rattle suspects, flushed a Qur'an down a toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.
These six words--"flushed a Qur'an down a toilet" --traversed the globe, reportedly caused riots in the Arab world where 16 people were killed and more than 100 injured. Those six words also wrecked the integrity of a once-distinguished weekly newsmagazine and turned two ace investigative reporters into a pair of scoop-crazed goofballs. And none of this should have happened.
What is so mind boggling is that no one in the media or federal government caught the fact that the story was fatally and obviously flawed from the beginning.
It is ipso facto physically impossible to flush a book down a toilet!
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.
A book can be tossed into a toilet. A book can be dropped down a porta-potty or an outhouse "one-holer." But the Newsweek people are wordsmiths, and the operative word here was "flush." A book cannot be flushed down a toilet whole. Further, it cannot be done page-by-page. Book paper is hard and thick so as to be opaque when printed on both sides. Crumple a couple of book pages and try to flush them, and your toilet would be stopped up for days.
It is not expected that the Army would be in possession of a Hemingway detector. But a shutdown of all the detectors at Newsweek--and indeed the entire mainstream media establishment around the world--was breathtaking.
Only the blogosphere "got" it. Check out http://silentrunning.tv/archives/005868.php to see step-by-step photographs of an attempt to flush a book down a toilet.
What makes this story so fascinating is that it embarrassed the libeler and the libelee, forcing both to go into crisis management mode. What's more, both blew a huge opportunity to make things right in the minds of the American public and the entire Arab world. Here is a look at how each of the two parties reacted.
The U.S. Army
At the time the Army was reeling from a series PR nightmares:
*The Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse and sex scandal that resulted in a few low-level non-coms and one inept female National Guard brigadier general taking the fall while the Regular Army top brass, all the way up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, slithered out unscathed.
*The murder of two detainees by the Army in Afghanistan and an investigation into the deaths of 23 more.
*A sex scandal in March at Guantanamo, where two of the field grade Army officers were relieved of their command after being accused of sexual relations with a bevy of female civilian contractors and a female Navy lieutenant.
*The craven award of a Silver Star to Ranger Pat Tillman, who had thrown over a $3.5 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army and who supposedly died fighting "without regard for his personal safety," only to have it later revealed he was killed in a "friendly fire" accident.
Quite simply, when the Koran-down-the-toilet story broke, the Army was in a state of PR shell shock.
How the Army should have responded
A spokesperson should immediately have gone on the offensive and challenged Newsweek's reporters to show the nation the world exactly how a book could be flushed down a toilet. If the demonstration wer successful, the Army then would launch an immediate investigation. The spokesperson might have added that it would probably be a good idea that the book used in the demonstration not be a Koran.
In other words, the day the story broke, the Army had a tiny window of opportunity to turn the situation around to humiliate and mock Newsweek. This might have stopped the story in its tracks.
Instead, an investigation was launched and weeks later, on May 27, the Army announced that five instances were found where the Koran was dissed at Guantanamo, but no record existed of one being flushed down a toilet.
Meanwhile, in the ensuing brouhaha, Newsweek had second thoughts about the authenticity of the reportage. In the issue on the newsstand the following Monday, Editor Mark Whitaker admitted the story was inaccurate. Hoping an apology would lay the story to rest, Whitaker wrote, "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."
The apology did not cut it. The Pentagon was quite rightly in high dudgeon. Spokesman Bryan Whitman called the story "irresponsible" and demonstrably false." He went on, "Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which, by their own admission, do not withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, they cannot retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice weighed in, saying, "It's appalling that this story got out there." Her sentiments were echoed by Rumsfeld, who said, "People lost their lives. People are dead. People need to be very careful about what they say, just as they need to be careful of what they do."
Finally on May 16, Newsweek was shamed into issuing a full retraction. In a statement, Whitaker said, "Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Qur'an abuse at Guantanamo Bay."
Worse, Desmond Butler of the AP reported on May 24 that Michael Isikoff was interviewed on "The Charlie Rose Show," where he said, "It's thrown us off our game for a little bit."
According to the AP account, Isikoff continued, "I think this will end up being a blip."
Sixteen deaths, 100 injuries and an Afghan cleric calling for Holy War against the United States--a blip?
Newsweek's integrity had been savaged. And incredibly, Isikoff was allowed to go on national television to compound the disaster.
How Newsweek should have responded
In my opinion, the moment the retraction was issued, Donald Graham, chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Company (Newsweek's owner), should have stepped before the cameras and talked about the great tradition of investigative journalism for which The Washington Post is famous--namely the Watergate Scandal. He should have called up the memory of his courageous mother, Katherine Graham, her hard-driving managing editor, Benjamin Bradlee, and the flawless reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that toppled a president and won a Pulitzer Prize.
Graham should have stated that this monumental gaffe was not about the authenticity or numbers of anonymous sources, but about common sense. The idea that Newsweek reporters would state that a book could be flushed down a toilet was prima facie preposterous. Clearly their senses took leave of Isikoff and Barry, as well as Whitaker, the editor who permitted this story to run. Graham should have said it was therefore with great regret that the employment of Isikoff, Barry and Whitaker was being terminated immediately.
Only then would the nation and the world--and particularly the Arab Street--believe that Newsweek and the United States were seriously contrite about the massive affront to Islam.
Precedent exists for the swift axing of these journalists. As a result of "Rathergate," CBS fired "Sixty Minutes" producers and VPs Josh Howard, Mary Mapes, Mary Murphy and Betsy West, and TV icon Dan Rather was shipped out to pasture.
In 1988, in order to restore its credibility, CNN summarily fired producers April Oliver and Jack Smith for the bogus "Tailwind" broadcast, in which it was charged that the United States had used lethal nerve gas in Laos to kill American defectors from the Vietnam War in 1970. In addition, Pulitzer Prize -winning reporter Peter Arnett, who was flown in to read the narration on air and had nothing to do with the development of the story, wound up getting fired as well.
But Graham did not step up to the plate and restore credibility to Newsweek. As of this writing, Barry is still employed. Whitaker is still employed. Isikoff is still employed, no doubt still smarting from not only the retraction, but also from Newsweek's allowing that insouciant rascal Matt Drudge to scoop his Monica Lewinsky story so many years ago.
One further thought. When top people are fired, internal grumbling ensues with dark mutterings about how management allowed loyal employees to twist in the wind. But nobody in the organization weeps. After all, everybody moves up.