In light of the recent Newsweek fiasco, I once again asked reporters I know to comment. The one who recently posted about the Downing Street (or Blair) memo, had this to say (and he's answering questions in the comments section):
I hate to be alarmist, but I think it's bad, really bad. I think this is the Fuckup Bell Grande that Bush & Co. have been waiting for, really. It's even worse than Rather, because you could kind of pawn that off on Crazy Ol' Lib'ral Dan, who was on his way out the door anyway. But this -- from a respected publication, and leading to the tenuous but powerful idea that it caused deaths -- is manna for the GOP and right-wing media. As if the mainstream media weren't cowed enough already, here's the Administration's chance to shut them up completely, and for a good, long while.
It may sound weird, but I think about Watergate. Essentially, Newsweek's error was to place its faith in a confidential source who, by design or not, backtracked on his allegation that the upcoming government report on Guantanamo would include an incident of Quran-flushing. That's it. It's remarkably similar to Woodward and Bernstein's big fuckup during Watergate -- they wrote that Haldeman controlled the secret GOP fund that paid for all manner of political dirty tricks and hijinks, but their problem was the attribution: They said the information came from Hugh Sloan's grand-jury testimony, which it didn't. Sloan never named Haldeman before the grand jury because he was never asked about Haldeman; had Sloan been asked, he would have named him.
Like this: I don't think there's much doubt that abuses have occurred at Guantanamo, and the consistency of other accounts that have been public for months now -- all involving Quran-flushing or tossing into the bowl -- would tend to back the story up. In Watergate, B & W were essentially correct: Haldeman controlled the money. In this, I'm pretty sure Newsweek was essentially correct: The Quran-flushing and other abuses happened. But the source turned out to be sour.
And what's maddening is that, just as Rather's thing tended to wipe out any further questions about Bush's Guard "service" -- even though it's clear that the basic facts are correct -- this is going to lead to a chilling effect on any inquiries into any abuses at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo in particular and the war on terror in general.
I think about Watergate, too, when I wonder why Newsweek capitulated so quickly. When the Haldeman fuckup happened, Ben Bradlee said, in essence, let's hold tight, we don't know exactly what's going on here, let's not make another move until we know something more solid, and in the meantime, "we stand by our story." That's what they did, and they were vindicated in the end. I don't want to think Newsweek was intimidated by the Pentagon, but it certainly looks that way from here. And once they apologized, that was it, ball game over.
That's my take on it. Again, I hate to be a Cassandra, but I think we may be looking at a pretty monumental event, something that may change the way American media operate, at least temporarily. I hope I'm wrong.
You've probably already seen this, but I think he's almost completely on target. I don't think this is a complete post hoc, ergo propter hoc deal, as he seems to think -- the Newsweek story apparently was a factor in the riots, although certainly not the only one -- but his thinking pretty much matches mine.
In the meantime, I have this image of Karl Rove banging his loafer on a desk, yelling, "We will bury you."
UPDATE (by Rob): The Columbia Journalism Review's take on the Newsweek fiasco.
Here's what Newsweek had to say for itself.