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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

News Weak

While the blogosphere went crazy over the Newsweek story yesterday, I wonder how many of them picked up this press release from the Pentagon, in which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, says that the deaths and rioting in Jalalabad were not connected to the magazine's report; it was related to the ongoing political problems in Afghanistan.

That flies right in the face of headlines like this one, from Rupert Murdoch's London tabloid, The Times: "Newsweek sparks global riots with one paragraph on Koran." Perhaps the Times should also look up the definition of "global." The riots took place in two countries, hardly a global event.

It's also important to note that Newsweek gave the Pentagon a chance to vet the story, but no one waved them off the Quran item. Obviously, the military didn't foresee the rioting as a consequence of running the item, either.

None of this is to excuse Newsweek's methodology, in which an item attributed to an anonymous source was printed without confirmation from other sources. That's bad policy in any story, but worse -- and more dangerous -- in a story as volatile as this one.

We're dealing with a culture which ranks a symbol as more important than human life -- much like those in the US who go crazy over flag burning and would kill anyone who dared commit that act. One Pakistani protester, representative of far too many religious zealots, exemplified this problem when he told Newsweek, "We can understand torturing prisoners, no matter how repulsive, but insulting the Quran is like deliberately torturing all Muslims. This we cannot tolerate."

More disturbing than that, however, is the fact that people would riot over this small news item in the first place. I've never understood what it is that makes anyone hear some news -- flushing the Quran, the Rodney King verdict, a sports team winning a championship -- and decide to leave their home and destroy their community.

"My team won the Super Bowl, so I just have to turn a car over and burn it!" "A jury made a bad decision, so I'm going to steal a television!" "Someone half a world away might have done something disrespectful to a copy of a book, so I'm going to kill someone!"

Shouldn't the blame for any damage resulting from these acts be placed solely at the feet of those who committed those acts, and the leaders who may have urged them on?