Newsweek officially retracted yesterday a report that said U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had desecrated the Quran, which sparked rioting in Afghanistan and Pakistan that claimed at least 15 lives and drew denunciations from the Bush administration.
After a weekend of half-measures in which the magazine apologized for the report without retracting it, Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker said in a brief statement late yesterday, "Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay."
It was only the latest embarrassment for the mainstream media, which this year saw the resignation of CBS anchor Dan Rather over a flawed report on President Bush's National Guard duty and dismissals of journalists across the country for fabrications and plagiarism.
Newsweek reported May 1 that a copy of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, had been flushed down a toilet "in an attempt to rattle suspects" and that a military investigation had confirmed the incident. The report led to violent anti-American riots last week.
Newsweek's retraction came after the administration said there was no credible evidence of the desecration and accused the magazine of damaging the United States' image abroad.
"There is a certain journalistic standard that should be met, and in this case it was not met," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "The report was not accurate, and it was based on a single anonymous source who cannot personally substantiate the report.
"This report has had serious consequences," he said. "It has caused damage to the image of the United States abroad. People have lost their lives. It has certainly caused damage to the credibility of the media, as well, and Newsweek itself."
It was not the first time the press had reported on desecration of the Quran at Guantanamo. Several news organizations reported as early as 2003 that detainees said the Quran had been thrown into a toilet. But Newsweek was the first to report that the U.S. Southern Command in Miami was expected to confirm it.
But the military issued no such report, and the Pentagon told Newsweek last week that it had found no evidence of the alleged desecration. Newsweek checked with its original, unnamed source for the item, and he said he was no longer sure he had been accurate.
The Pentagon had no reaction last night to Newsweek's retraction. But in an earlier statement, spokesman Bryan Whitman said, "The original Newsweek article was irresponsible and had significant consequences that reverberated throughout Muslim communities around the world."
Whitman also said, "Newsweek hid behind anonymous sources, which by their own admission do not withstand scrutiny. Unfortunately, they can not retract the damage they have done to this nation or those that were viciously attacked by those false allegations."
The Newsweek report appeared in the magazine's "Periscope" section - a collection of short news, entertainment and culture items. A former Newsweek editor said yesterday that "Periscope," at least during his tenure, had less strict sourcing rules than other sections of the magazine.
"When I was at Newsweek, the lowest threshold for sourcing was 'Periscope,' " said Stephen G. Smith, who was Newsweek's executive editor from 1986 to 1991. "It was by its very nature a bit edgier. 'Periscope,' as its name would suggest, was a source of early warning signals rather than the last word on things. Because of that, things weren't double-riveted a lot of the time. They were single sources and often anonymous."
Smith, now the Washington bureau chief for The Houston Chronicle and a former top editor at Time and U.S. News & World Report, said that in his time at Newsweek, more mistakes occurred in "Periscope," proportionally, than in any other section of the magazine.
But no matter where it appeared in the magazine, the Newsweek report again raises the issue of anonymous sources in the media. As readers have complained about unnamed sources, and as the press has been rocked by credibility scandals, many news organizations are tightening their rules on the use of such sources.
The issue was among several raised by an internal committee at The New York Times that studied how to improve readers' trust in the paper. The committee's 16-page report recommended keeping anonymous sources to a minimum and urging reporters to aggressively press sources to put information on the record.
One member of that committee, Times Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman, said yesterday that anonymous sources can be vital to keeping readers informed but Washington reporters rely too heavily on them.
"It leaves readers wondering who provided this information and raises questions about how credible it is," Taubman said. "It strikes at the heart of what news organizations like the Times are trying to do, and if we lose credibility with readers, we have lost one of our most precious assets."
He said the issue has been pushed to the fore by the series of journalistic scandals in recent years. Last week, a columnist at The Sacramento Bee resigned because she could not answer questions about whether people quoted in her columns existed.
The Detroit Free Press said this week that a review of more than 600 columns by Mitch Albom found he had taken quotes from other newspapers and TV programs without attribution.
Problems with sourcing also figured into the scandal at The New York Times over reporter Jayson Blair, who fabricated or plagiarized several dozen stories and was fired.
"Certainly, it's gotten resonance from some of the embarrassments news organizations have experienced in recent years," Taubman said. "If we'd known more about the sources of, for example, Jayson Blair, or lack thereof, then maybe his serial fabrications would have been stopped much sooner."
This month, the Washington bureau chiefs of seven news organizations - including The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times - met with the White House press secretary to ask that the administration curtail the use of anonymous background briefings.
The White House has not officially responded, but some reporters said they have noticed fewer background briefings.
Journalists say there is no reason the officials giving the briefings - often spokesmen for the administration - cannot be named.
"It hurts reporters' credibility when we report news on background, and it hurts the White House's credibility," said USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page. "All of us have seen various journalistic controversies and we've seen an erosion of public trust in the mainstream media. All of us want to rebuild trust, and this is one of the ways in which you can do it."