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May 18 - June 1, 2005 Issue #75
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Liberal Strategy in Culture Wars: Play Dead

by Allan Uthman
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Surrender Monkeys: Liberal Strategy in Culture Wars: Play Dead -- by Allan Uthman

The press is all over Newsweek’s "Quran in the toilet" article and subsequent retraction. The story is hot. It’s renewed interest in the debate over the credibility of the media, the responsibility of journalists, and available remedies when they make mistakes. For the first time in American history, the deaths of a handful of Muslims is a big deal, and many are advocating the firing of, well, some people at Newsweek.

The thing it seems nobody is interested in is that the story is true.

As reported at RawStory.com, "the allegations of religious desecration at Guantanamo…are common among ex-prisoners and have been widely reported outside the United States…Several former detainees at the Guantanamo and Bagram airbase prisons have reported instances of their handlers sitting or standing on the Quran, throwing or kicking it in toilets, and urinating on it."

The New York Times reported on a hunger strike at Gitmo in 2002, sparked by such Quran abuse, which ended when a senior officer apologized to the camp. They got the story from a detainee, and a former interrogator confirmed it. Another detainee confirmed the story in the Guardian a year later, and another in the Daily Mirror. The Washington Post reported on a toilet incident in March of 2003, with a detainee as the source. There are more accounts, from the BBC, court testimony, and other sources. Whether Newsweek’s story is accurate or not, what’s clear is that US interrogators have indeed desecrated the Quran, like it or not.

Newsweek’s mistake, it seems, was reporting that the Pentagon was actually going to admit what they had done, which, I must say, seems like quite a stretch.

The New York Times’ Judy Miller relied on a single source, Ahmed Chalabi, for a series of articles which legitimized Bush WMD claims leading up to the Iraq war. As we all (I hope) know now, Chalabi was feeding Miller a line of crap designed specifically to elicit public approval for the war. But no one at Fox, or the National Review, or any other conservative news source, is banging their drums for Miller’s head. Why? Her "lies" got them what they wanted.

In fact, despite The Times’ continued amnesiac reporting about the war and total denial of America’s status as an international lawbreaker, conservatives still attack the paper on a daily basis as the bastion of the "liberal media elite." And it’s working. In its own recent internal report, "Preserving our Readers’ Trust," many recommendations are made to the Times’ executive editor, some of which are obvious reactions to the increasingly strained criticism they’ve been receiving from increasingly incoherent ideologues. Among the "improvements" recommended are increasing religious coverage, avoidance of "loaded" terms—like "religious fundamentalists"—and including more "contrarian" viewpoints. In other words, they’re either buying into the "balanced" fallacy, or they’re tired of mean people yelling at them and they’re caving in.

My favorite quote from the Times report: "The public editor found that the overall tone of our coverage of gay marriage, as one example, "approaches cheerleading." By consistently framing the issue as a civil rights matter -- gays fighting for the right to be treated like everyone else -- we failed to convey how disturbing the issue is in many corners of American social, cultural and religious life."

Is that really framing? Isn’t gay marriage a civil rights issue, regardless of whether you’re for or against it? You know what else was a similarly "disturbing" issue in those same corners once? Interracial marriage. I wonder how the public editor would have "balanced" its coverage on that? Sometimes, the truth is just the truth.

The right wing’s distaste for reportage that reflects poorly on its heroes, no matter how solid, demonstrates the falsehood of the "balance" concept: it really doesn’t go both ways. While some liberals find the decidedly conservative Washington Times’ emphasis on the UN oil-for-food scandal to be disproportionate, nobody’s saying the story shouldn’t be investigated. Nobody’s calling it a witch-hunt, nobody’s calling the reporters scumbags or calling for them to be arrested. That would be just stupid. On the other hand, Washington Times editor and general gasbag Tony Blankley thinks the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh should be tried for espionage. Maybe he’s just jealous of all those scoops.

The silliest thing about all of this is the unquestioned dogma on the right that stodgy, middle-of-the-road publications like the New York Times and Newsweek are leftist. This is, really, just stupid. If you’re looking for a left-wing Bush-hating rag to target, try the Nation—or the Beast, for that matter. But to characterize a magazine that carries the delusional ravings of George Will as commie propaganda—which, seriously, a lot of these people really think—only says to the rest of us that you either have never read the thing or you’re nuts.

But, to those who mindlessly cheer on corruption and eagerly anticipate a more authoritarian future for America, the real crime of Newsweek, and of Dan Rather, isn’t in their journalistic screw-ups. Their crime is pursuing a story which reflects poorly on America, or Republican America. Exposing our ugliness is "unpatriotic," whether the story is true or not. These same people calling for heads to roll at Newsweek think everyone who files an embarrassing story is a traitor. When footage surfaced of marines shooting a wounded man in Iraq, the photographer was to blame. When the famous Abu Ghraib pictures exploded across front pages around the world, whoever let the pictures get out there was the culprit.

While most would not admit it, behind this mindset is the conviction that there’s really nothing wrong with torture, religious desecration, indefinite imprisonment without charges, or indeed killing, as long as we’re doing it to foreigners and they’re not doing it to us. When stories like this break, conservatives aren’t appalled; they’re embarrassed. And when a story goes south, they jump on it with bared fangs, attributing the mistake to some ludicrous "journalistic jihad" to overthrow the government.

Don’t believe me? Well, just to be sure no one thinks this article isn’t "balanced" enough, I checked out what some of the red meat conservatives over at FreeRepublic.com had to say about the Newsweek scandal. Here are a few highlights from a single thread on the topic:

Doesn't this report fall under the "shouting out fire in the theater" scenario? In that case, the reporter (and Newsweek) should be charged with sedition and murder.


No, they aren't against the war on terror. The staff of Newsweek is against the United States and all that it stands for and they enjoy inflicting harm on our country. They are in fact participants, albeit naive ones, in the jihad against the U.S.


This is how the left works and has for years. It's another clear reminder of how much they loathe America, and it was done with malice of forethought, per usual.


Face it, the MSM has got to know that they are making trouble in the Muslim world with this kind of story, and they had no business publishing it even if it were true...The same thing with Abu Ghraib.... the MSM published the story to the world… because it suited their political agenda to stir up trouble against America in the Middle East.


The point is I'M SERIOUS. People are dying because the MSM and Newsweek are deliberately trying hard to get Americans killed and trying to lose the war.


These quotes aren’t made up, folks. It goes on and on like this, seriously. These people really, really believe that the editorial staff at NewsweekNewsweek, for Christ’s sake—wake up every morning and say, "Let’s see…how can I help to destroy America, get people killed, and undermine Christian values today?"

Never mind that Mike Isikoff, co-writer of the Newsweek piece, spent the better part of the ‘90s pursuing Clinton sex scandal stories, one of which actually turned out to be true. Of course, nobody seemed to have a problem with Isikoff using what Media Matters calls "…sources whose stories were unverifiable, motivated by personal agendas, and often collapsed under later scrutiny" back then. That was helping America, to the freepers.

Ultimately, what they see as unpatriotic, or downright treasonous, is empathy for the other, the tendency or even the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Stories about lengthy detention and torture without charge bother most people, because they imagine themselves in the situation. They imagine how terrible it must be, how awfully unfair, especially for those who have done nothing to deserve such treatment. But the Neocon horde and the "Christian" conservatives see such empathy as not only weak, but a crime—a thoughtcrime. They go on the offensive instinctively, because they see weakness in it. And a weakness it is, because rather than standing up and defending themselves, yielding no ground the way any good conservative would, news outlets like Newsweek, CBS, and the New York Times fall into fits of self-examination that no right winger would ever engage in. They crumple and fold like the pussies they are when faced with minor errors backed up by lots of yelling, while Republicans refuse to concede even their most clear and blatant lies in the face of overwhelming evidence.

That’s why the right is winning. Their case is laughable, but they don’t give an inch, ever. They will never sacrifice their own—not O’Reilly, not John Bolton, not Rumsfeld, nobody. They push and push, and they win. And liberals wring their hands, still not ready to meet them with equal force, still trying to talk it out with people who are actively trying to shut down the free flow of information, even to themselves. You don’t talk to people like that; you fight them. You don’t try to respect their beliefs—when have they ever done that for you? You belittle them at every turn, because they deserve it. You call them what they are: Stupid. Ignorant. Delusional. Bigoted. Fascists.

Or, if you’re more eloquent, you might say something like this:

We’re seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable…Who are they? I mean the people obsessed with control, using the government to threaten and intimidate. I mean the people who are hollowing out middle-class security even as they enlist the sons and daughters of the working class in a war to make sure Ahmed Chalabi winds up controlling Iraq’s oil. I mean the people who turn faith-based initiatives into a slush fund and who encourage the pious to look heavenward and pray so as not to see the long arm of privilege and power picking their pockets. I mean the people who squelch free speech in an effort to obliterate dissent and consolidate their orthodoxy into the official view of reality from which any deviation becomes unpatriotic heresy.

That’s who I mean. And if that’s editorializing, so be it. A free press is one where it’s OK to state the conclusion you’re led to by the evidence.

Bill Moyers said that in 2005. Of course, he doesn’t work for PBS anymore. By the way, have you heard who’s in charge of Iraq’s oil? Me neither.

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