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Selective Outrage

May 17, 2005

According to chaos theory, the flapping of a single butterfly's wings can trigger a hurricane halfway across the globe, a phenomenon known as the "butterfly effect." Now the Bush administration thinks it has detected something that might be called the "Newsweek effect." It says the magazine's publication of an item in its May 9 issue, alleging that U.S. guards flushed the Koran down a toilet in order to humiliate prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, was a cause of riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan last week that left at least 14 people dead.

We'll leave it to the scientists and philosophers to debate the finer points of chaos theory. What we can say here is that the "Newsweek effect" is exaggerated.

This is not to say that Newsweek's article was correct; after apologizing for it on Sunday, the magazine retracted it on Monday. And the use of anonymous sources, on which the Newsweek article relied, raises questions of motivation and credibility that news organizations (including this one) ignore at their peril. But the story hardly tarnishes all news coverage of the war, as the administration, and much of the conservative media, would have you believe.

The more interesting question may not be how Newsweek goofed, but why the Muslim world is so ready to believe the story. For all the administration's huffing and puffing about Newsweek getting the story wrong, it has produced such a catalog of misdeeds at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo that almost any allegation is instantly credited abroad. The administration itself has said that 11 soldiers have been disciplined for abusing prisoners at Gitmo.

The United States has already been convicted in the court of world opinion for its treatment of its prisoners, and that's the administration's fault, not Newsweek's. Shutting down Guantanamo and giving suspected terrorists legal protections would help restore our reputation abroad. Crowing over Newsweek's mishap won't.

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