Media reports blamed Newsweek alone for violent Muslim demonstrations; Joint Chiefs chairman disagrees


Following reports that a retracted May 9 Newsweek item contributed to violent protests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, several news accounts simply echoed the White House's claim that Newsweek was responsible for the deadly violence while omitting evidence undermining that claim. The CBS Evening News, CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, National Public Radio's (NPR) Morning Edition, and The Washington Post all failed to note that top military officials have contradicted White House claims about what caused the recent violence. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers stated on May 12 that the violence was "not at all tied to the article in the magazine," which alleged that U.S. investigators found evidence that interrogators at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, "flushed a Quran down a toilet."

On the May 16 edition of the CBS Evening News, anchor Bob Schieffer stated that the Newsweek story "led to a week of violent anti-American demonstrations in Afghanistan in which at least 15 people were killed." On the May 16 edition of Wolf Blitzer Reports, CNN correspondent Barbara Starr reported that the article "touched off riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan, leaving at least 15 dead," while host Wolf Blitzer declared: "Unfortunately, there are dead people out there as a result of that report."

On that evening's edition of Special Report, host Brit Hume stated that "The story triggered protests in which 17 died," and Fox News chief White House correspondent Carl Cameron similarly reported: "The story sparked violent anti-American protests in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories. Seventeen people were killed." On the May 17 edition of NPR's Morning Edition, host Steve Inskeep noted that the Newsweek story "led to violent demonstrations in the Islamic world," while arts reporter Neda Ulaby reported that "reaction to the story was almost immediate: Riots exploded, and scores of people were injured. Fifteen people died." And Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz stated in a May 17 article: "The May 1 item triggered violent protests last week in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and other countries, in which at least 16 people were killed."

In fact, top U.S. military officials contended that other factors led to the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As Myers noted in a May 12 Department of Defense news briefing, according to Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, the violence "was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Quran" but was "more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President [Hamid] Karzai and his Cabinet is conducting in Afghanistan." Myers directly noted Eikenberry's belief that the violence "was not at all tied to the article in the magazine."

Not all news reports ignored other elements that apparently contributed to the violent protests. For example, in his report on the Newsweek controversy on the May 16 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC News correspondent David Shuster aired Myers's remarks that Newsweek was not to blame. Shuster added that "the reputation of American interrogators has been awful for more than a year. Last spring, there were the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and since then, there have been stories about Guantánamo Bay."

Moreover, NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams's report on the May 16 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News documented an assessment by Barnett Rubin, director of studies at New York University's Center for International Cooperation, that Karzai's openness to "a long-term military relationship with the United States" may have also contributed to the violent protests:

WILLIAMS: While the debate wages over Newsweek's journalism, some experts on the region say last week's protests have long been simmering and involve more than just the Quran story.

RUBIN: From the very beginning, the demonstrators also said that they didn't want any permanent U.S. bases on Afghanistan, which was a reaction to some statements by President Karzai that he would discuss a long-term military relationship with the United States.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.