May 17, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

Our Insular Media

With Newsweek's retraction of its story about Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, we are now deep into yet another bout of soul-searching by the U.S. media. The pity would be if, in all the parsing of media methods and pondering of the mysteries of anonymous sources, we missed the bigger picture–which is all about why Muslims offended by an item in a U.S. magazine, true or false, would react with riots that end in the maiming and killing of their own.

The Newsweek story, as we have recently been learning around the clock, was false. Citing anonymous “sources,” Newsweek reported in its May 9 edition that American interrogators at Guantanomo Bay had tried to rattle detainees by flushing a copy of the Koran down the toilet. Word spread in the Muslim world. Riots broke out in places such as Gaza, Yemen and most notably Afghanistan–where at least 16 people died. The story, and its fallout, became big news in the U.S., where Pentagon and White House spokesmen said Newsweek had gotten its facts wrong. Newsweek's editors, unable to substantiate the story, apologized. Then, as the furor grew, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker issued a statement: “Based on what we know now, we are retracting our original story that an internal military investigation had uncovered Qur'an abuse at Guantanomo Bay.”

That will likely come as cold comfort to U.S. troops abroad, some of whom were among the immediate targets of stone-throwing demonstrators in Afghanistan when the story first spread. According to Associated Press reports, rioting mobs in Afghanistan went on to smash car and shop windows, attack the offices of two United Nations agencies, and steal, smash and burn equipment at one of the biggest aid outfits in the country, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.

But the chief victims to date have been the rioters themselves, some of whom died as the violence escalated. A Washington Post report Monday quoted an Afghan dry-goods salesman, Del Agha, who joined one of the riots, as saying: “We wanted to have a peaceful demonstration, but the demonstration was like a car and some people who are the enemies of Afghanistan took the steering wheel and turned it in the wrong direction.”

As recounted in the Arab News, an English-language newspaper based in Saudi Arabia, Afghans angered by the Newsweek story “have lashed out in fury in all directions. The fact that not only government and UN buildings were burned, but even mosques shows the depths of their rage. The same level of public anger has been reported from Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt and many other Muslim countries.”

Let's pause right there. We are hearing that Muslims, infuriated by a report of blasphemy, went on violent rampages that resulted in . . . dead Muslims and burned mosques. Meanwhile, not only is Newsweek apologizing and retracting, but the U.S. government is regretting the loss of life.
What's really going on here is two stories. One involves Newsweek and the ups and downs of U.S. journalism. The other involves a swath of the Islamic world in which anger, fueled by years of gross political misrule, is a chronic feature of life–seeking to acquire a target. What produced these particular riots was the intersection of Islamic-world furies and that brand of U.S. self-absorption in which no subject is more fascinating to the American media than any possible misdeeds of the U.S. itself.

For better or worse, the U.S. media occupy an extraordinary position in the world. Richer in resources than most, and freer than almost any, American reporters enjoy an astounding ability to pursue stories of many kinds, in many places. By and large they produce a brand of journalism that despite its flaws is more reliable than most. But it is also focused chiefly on the U.S.

The tragedy in all this is that while the entire world is by now acquainted with tales–true and false–about Abu Ghraib and Guantanomo Bay, the information pretty much ends there. When it comes to the Islamic world's most despotic states, almost no one outside their borders can reel off the names of the prisons they run, let alone tales of what happens within. Afghanistan is still recovering from the Taliban blackout of the human soul–which at the time received almost no coverage. Saudi Arabia–whence the Arab News, in its disquisition on Newsweek's story, denounces the U.S. as “ignorant and insensitive”–provides no accounting to the world of its dungeons. Can anyone name a prison in Yemen?

The point is not to engage in a tit-for-tat recitation of prison management, or invite a reprise of those absurd old Soviet debates, in which Moscow's reply to charges of millions dead in the gulag was that America had street crime.

But to whatever extent the press is engaged in the business of trying to report the truth, or contribute to the making of a better world, it would be a service not only to U.S. journalism, but to the wider world–including Muslims–to spend less effort dredging Guantanomo Bay, and more time wielding the huge resources at our disposal to report on the prisons of the Islamic world. It is in such places that the recent riots had their true origins.

– Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.