Monday, May 16, 2005

Gauging the Newsweek Effect

Such moments of chaos as we've seen in the outbreak of violence following the incendiary May 9 Newsweek article on internment practices in Afghanistan invite broad questions and vague insights into the nature of wartime 'unknown unknowns.' It is in such times especially that commitment to a priori principles matters most, even more than prudent apprehension.

That the administration has responded to the Newsweek story only with contempt for the possible overstatement of its own semi-covert policies in Afghanistan and elsewhere reflects a slew of long-developing vices, of which a polite contempt for a free media and a tight-lipped ambivalence toward the bloody chaos wrought by some rotten American soldier-torturers (however few) are the most obvious. It is well past time for a scrupulous inquiry into media organs' methods and standards in employing anonymous sources. Those for whom the liberty of the media in transmitting potentially dangerous information in the midst of global war nullifies demands for either factual accuracy or regard for life-threatening outcomes should of course be taken with more than one grain of salt. But the constant tension between the virtue of freedom and the perils of the unknown is no more likely to be sorted out in newsrooms or editors' offices than in the edifices of Congress or anywhere else in political society. This is, it seems to me, an irreducible and permanent conundrum. The frenetic pace of calling for a heavy-handed remedy and assigning blame is a greater danger than the apparently misguided information-gathering by Newsweek. If some demonstrable breach of standards in information-gathering turns up, it should be quickly decried and corrected at the immediate personnel source. As Andrew Sullivan notes though, it seems a little implausible that the claim of Koranic desecration, in the midst of the other amoral and puerile abuses surfacing from interrogation centers, is a pure concoction of a subversive media. Whenever the truth of this debacle sees the light of day, we must hope that the administration quickly shuts up and turns inward in rethinking the policy of extreme interrogation methods and rendition standards. Because if Newsweek took a single disastrous step in the wrong direction with this article, the step comes at the end of a long and painstaking path toward reality. When it becomes apparent that the export of American detainees to Uzbek prisons has been halted, when news agencies no longer turn up photos of piled-up corpses outstretched beside gleeful Western interrogators, I'll calm down about the administration's reflexive preference for secrecy and its hostility toward purported media histrionics. I'll calm down even more when the folks at National Review (part of the media, I am assured) hurl themselves into the media flagellation binge without resorting to multiple NRO references to "Newsweak." Leave the awful puns to Michelle Malkin, guys. You're better than that.

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