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Protests Over 'Newsweek' Article Point to Media Revolution

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The White House is keeping the pressure on Newsweek. Spokesman Scott McClellan wants the magazine to help repair the damage its now-retracted report has done to US credibility abroad. NPR senior news analyst Daniel Schorr says Newsweek has much to account for.

DANIEL SCHORR:

Newsweek seems to consign interesting items not fully authenticated to its Periscope column. The report of a copy of the Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo Bay may well be the gossip item heard 'round the world. It triggered a wave of violence in which at least 15 persons were killed, hundreds were injured and anti-Americanism received a huge boost, even in an American client country like Afghanistan.

I write this critique of valued colleagues without pleasure. No one could have known the extent of the reaction. But Newsweek went with a single source that was perhaps unwitting, perhaps mischievous, and then stood back appalled at what it had wrought. It sent a shocking message like Abu Ghraib, this time without the pictures.

Actually this was not the first report of Koran desecration as a way of breaking the spirit of detainees. John Sifton of the Human Rights Watch in New York told me today that his organization has been receiving reports from released detainees since 2003 of the defiling of a Koran by interrogators, who would routinely kick the book across the floor with the detainee watching. This was apparently in violation of military orders barring the showing of disrespect for the Islamic holy book.

Why did this latest incident touch off such a profound reaction from Gaza to Indonesia? In part, because the citing of an unnamed American official made the report seem official but perhaps, in larger part, because of a communications revolution in the Islamic world. From satellite newscasts to the Internet, they have facilitated the work of the anti-American agitator.

Newsweek's formal retraction is not likely to change much, nor the promised letter to the staff from the magazine's chairman, Richard Smith, discussing the handling of information from anonymous sources. Newsweek and the world will have to live with the consequences of that little Periscope item. This is Daniel Schorr.

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BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Schorr
Daniel Schorr passed away on Friday, July 23, 2010. See an obituary, photo gallery and an archive of Schorr's commentaries for NPR.