The press plays Truth or Consequences--or neither
Austin Bay has some excellent commentary on the story of the Newsweek article alleging that a Koran was flushed down a Guantanamo toilet. The report has sparked outrage and deaths in Afghanistan, and may cause more before this is through.
The questions raised by this story are deep ones. What is the responsibility of the media for the unforeseen consequences of their reporting? And what duty do they have to try to foresee the possible consequences of publicaton? If foreseen, what duty do they have to suppress a story to avoid such consequences? And how certain do they have to be of the story's veracity to publish these--or any--allegations?
In a sense, this Koran-flushing story is of the easiest type to judge, because it turns out that the allegations contained therein were almost certainly untrue, the story itself was relatively trivial and unimportant (there was no overriding "need to know"), and it was based on sketchy and anonymous sources. But what if the story had been true, or important, or well-sourced, or some combination of all three? The task of deciding how to factor in the question of consequences then becomes more difficult.
If we go back in time, we find that, during FDR's Presidency, reporters didn't even publish their own certain knowledge of how physically limited he was. They were so wary of the consequences of the story, so protective of both the President and the public, that they voluntarily censored themselves. The same is true for the early rumors concerning JFK's kinky extra-curricular sex life. Reporters of the time apparently suppressed the story for protective purposes--and also, perhaps, because JFK was well-liked by the press corps. Of course, in those pre-Sullivan vs. NY Times days, the penalties for getting it wrong were a good deal greater.
Now things are quite different, to say the least. They have been for some time. And, as Austin Bay rightly points out, the consequences in this age of cybercommunication are no longer local, they are worldwide and nearly instantaneous. The world has become like a room filled with propane or pure oxygen--a small spark is all that's needed for ignition.
Back in my liberal days, when Republicans were busy trying to impeach and remove Clinton from office (for crimes I thought were both stupid and wrong, but which didn't seem to me to rise to the level of impeachable offenses) I was very upset by the release of the Starr report. I had what seemed at the time (even to me) to be a very strange worry about it. I was concerned about its effect on the fundamentalist Moslem world. It occurred to me that such a puritanical group might experience a sort of wild rage on reading it, a feeling that America and the West were hopelessly corrupt and sexualized--that only a Sodom and Gomorrah-esque country would be publishing this sort of material about its own President--and you know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah.
I have no idea whether the Starr report factored into the 9/11 attacks in any way. I am not familiar with any references to it; it's certainly possible (perhaps even likely) that it did not. But, whether or not it had such an effect, the idea was already implanted in my mind that the media needs to at least consider the effects of the stories they publish.
Every journalist and every editor has a myriad of small decisions to make for each event: whether this is a story that needs to be covered, and, if so, in what detail; which sources are reliable and which not; which pieces of information should be included and which excluded. Long ago, the press used to factor into their decision-making process assumptions about the effect of such stories--on the war effort and on the American public, for example (the effect on the world wasn't such a big deal at the time, because of the immense gulf involved). But since the late 60s, when the press rose to its present position as government and military antagonist, the idea of the press as exalted mouthpiece of truth became reified. Now the position of the press seems to be Consequences? Who cares? Our only fidelity is to truth. And this "truth" has, unfortunately, come to be defined more and more as whatever any Deep (or Shallow) Throat might happen to say it is, as long as the story is scandalous enough to draw readers.
The result? Coverage of stories with no thought for consequences--and, increasingly, with a callous and reckless disregard for truth, also. A winning combination, is it not?
If any good comes out of this Newsweek fiasco and tragedy, perhaps it will be a re-evaluation of the duty of the press to be conscientious and cautious regarding both truth and consequences