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'Newsweek' Apologizes for Report on Quran Abuse


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Newsweek magazine is retreating from a report that led to deadly demonstrations on the other side of the world. In a brief story some two weeks ago, Newsweek reported on conditions at the US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The item said there was evidence supporting allegations that military interrogators had desecrated the Koran. That story led to deadly rioting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The reporting behind the story has been under question since Friday when the Defense Department contradicted it. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.


In the next Newsweek, readers will find an apology from editor Mark Whitaker. Whitaker explained why in an interview with National Public Radio last night.

Mr. MARK WHITAKER (Editor, Newsweek): We feel terrible about the violence and the role that Newsweek's reporting has played in it.

FOLKENFLIK: Whitaker also apologized for anything that Newsweek may have gotten wrong in its initial reporting. But Whitaker says his note does not mean Newsweek has withdrawn its story.

Mr. WHITAKER: It is not a retraction. It is an acknowledgement that we may have gotten certain things wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: Reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry cited unnamed sources in their brief item. In Newsweek's international edition, the two wrote that military investigators found evidence that interrogators, quote, "placed Korans on toilets and, in at least one case, flushed a holy book down the toilet." And here's what happened next.

(Soundbite of people yelling)

FOLKENFLIK: Riots against the US claimed at least 15 lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. John Sifton is the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. Sifton says detainees first described incidents of desecration of the Koran two years ago.

Mr. JOHN SIFTON (Human Rights Watch): People were complaining that the first strike at Guantanamo, hunger strike that took place in early 2002, was the result of a guard throwing a Koran on the ground.

FOLKENFLIK: To some, the outrage was predictable. Fawaz Gerges is a professor of Middle East studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

Professor FAWAZ GERGES (Sarah Lawrence College): In the eyes of Muslims, defacing the Koran is like systematically and consciously abusing and torturing all 1.2 billion Muslims in 53 countries in the world.

FOLKENFLIK: US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told CNN yesterday the government is looking into the claims.

Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (US National Security Adviser): Our policy is to not--have nothing but the utmost respect for the holy Koran, and if this did occur, people will be held to account.

FOLKENFLIK: But Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker now says his magazine can't stand by its initial report. And here's how that happened. On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita angrily called Newsweek to complain. Reporter Michael Isikoff's primary source was someone the magazine now describes as a `senior US government official who is knowledgeable.' Isikoff asked a senior military spokesman to comment on his allegations. The spokesman refused. Newsweek's John Barry then showed the story to a senior Defense Department official. The official contradicted Newsweek's reporting elsewhere, but didn't object to the reference to the Koran. Newsweek took that as a second confirmation. But it wasn't. Yesterday Whitaker said Newsweek's attribution was wrong.

Mr. WHITAKER: Sources, that should not have been the story. It was one source.

FOLKENFLIK: To add to its troubles, Newsweek says Isikoff's source now doesn't recall precisely which documents he saw, but he still says he saw them. DiRita's angry response: How could he be credible now? Pentagon spokesman Brian Whitman tells NPR that Newsweek's story was, quote, "demonstrably false." But Professor Gerges says the damage is done. He says many Muslims abroad see little distinction between Newsweek and the US government.

Prof. GERGES: Many Arabs and Muslims will likely believe that the apology was forced on Newsweek.

FOLKENFLIK: But the magazine denies it has backpedaled to please the government. Newsweek's Whitaker says he's trying to be as clear as possible about what his magazine knows and what it doesn't.

Mr. WHITAKER: And it's not because we are being pressured by the administration. It's because further evidence has come to light that we didn't have at the time.

FOLKENFLIK: Whitaker says his staff will continue to report vigorously to learn the truth behind the allegations. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.