E.J. Dionne / Syndicated columnist
Intimidating the media
So it turns out that the FBI has documents showing that detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, complained about the mistreatment of the...
WASHINGTON — So it turns out that the FBI has documents showing that detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, complained about the mistreatment of the Quran and that many said they were severely beaten.
The documents specifically include an allegation from a prisoner that guards had "flushed a [Quran] in the toilet." What, then, is one to make about the Bush administration's furious assault against Newsweek magazine for bringing allegations about the abuse of the Quran to popular attention?
Let's be clear: Newsweek originally reported that an internal military investigation had "confirmed" infractions alleged in "internal FBI e-mails," including the Quran incident. The new documents made public last week include only an allegation from a prisoner. And the Pentagon insisted that the same prisoner, re-interviewed on May 14, "did not corroborate" his earlier claim.
Personally, I hope all the Quran abuse claims are proved false. But those claims were in wide circulation before the Newsweek report and demanded investigation. In the meantime, let's also be clear about why the administration and its apologists — more about that word in a moment — went bonkers over the Newsweek story.
Not only did the war on Newsweek shift attention away from the issues of how prisoners at Guantánamo are treated, how that treatment was affecting the battle against terror, and what American policies should be. Newsweek-bashing also furthered a long-term and so far successful campaign by the administration and the conservative movement to dismiss all negative reports about their side as the product of some entity they call "the liberal media."
At this point, it is customary to offer a disclaimer to the effect that my column runs in The Washington Post, is syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group and that The Washington Post Company owns Newsweek.
And I resisted writing about this subject precisely because I do not want anyone to confuse my own views with Newsweek's or the Post's. I write about it now because of the new reports and because I fear that too many people in traditional journalism are becoming dangerously defensive in the face of a brilliantly conceived conservative attack on the independent media.
Conservative academics have long attacked "postmodernist" philosophies for questioning whether "truth" exists at all and claiming that what we take as "truths" are merely "narratives" woven around some ideological predisposition. Today's conservative activists have become the new postmodernists. They shift attention away from the truth or falsity of specific facts and allegations — and move the discussion to the motives of the journalists and media putting them forward. Just a modest number of failures can be used to discredit an entire enterprise.
Of course journalists make mistakes, sometimes stupid ones. Dan Rather should not have used those wacky documents in reporting on President Bush's Air National Guard service. Newsweek has been admirably self-critical about what it sees as its own mistakes on the Guantánamo story. Anonymous sources are overused. Why quote a nameless conservative saying a particular columnist is "an idiot liberal" when many loyal right-wingers could be found to say the same thing even more colorfully on the record? If the current controversies lead to better journalism, three cheers.
But this particular anti-press campaign is not about Journalism 101. It is about Power 101. It is a sophisticated effort to demolish the idea of a press independent of political parties by way of discouraging scrutiny of conservative politicians in power. By using bad documents, Dan Rather helped Bush, not John Kerry, because Rather gave Bush's skilled lieutenants the chance to use the CBS mistake to close off an entire line of inquiry about the president. In the case of Guantánamo, the administration, for a while, cast its actions as less important than Newsweek's.
Back when the press was investigating Bill Clinton, conservatives were eager to believe every negative report about the incumbent. Some even pushed totally false claims, including the loony allegation that Clinton aide Vince Foster was somehow murdered by Clinton's apparatchiks when, in fact, Foster committed suicide. Every journalist who went after Clinton was "courageous." Anyone who opposed his impeachment or questioned even false allegations was "an apologist." We now know that the conservatives' admiration for a crusading and investigative press carried an expiration date of Jan. 20, 2001.
When the press fails, it should be called on the carpet. But when the press confronts a politically motivated campaign of intimidation, its obligation is to resist — and to keep reporting.
E.J. Dionne's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org