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“How did NEWSWEEK get its facts wrong?” And is that a retraction, or what?

Newsweek photo.jpgNewsweek is hugely on the hotseat this week after sparking an international conflagration with the publication of a May 9th item confirming reports that the Koran (aka Qur’an) was flushed down a toilet at Guatanamo Bay to “rattle” suspects. As it turns out, the “sources” that had “confirmed” the event was actually one guy who later backed off from it. Meanwhile, at least 15 people are dead (17 according to the NYT) in Afghanistan and riots have been spreading all weekend through the Muslim world. Not good.

Newsweek has apologized. Every news organization from here to Calcutta has led with that. But the editor’s note by Newsweek Editor Mark Whitaker is hardly a mea culpa.

In its own version of the Jayson Blair “reportNewsweek gives the rundown (read: justification) of how the story (by veteran investigative journalist Michael Isikoff and National Security Correspondent John Barry) developed (“How a Fire Broke Out“), tracing its genesis from “a longtime reliable source” in the U.S. government who specifically mentioned the Qur’an-flushing to non-confirmation (but non-denial) from “a senior Defense official.” Turns out the official didn’t say either way because he didn’t know either way. Oops.

Which is Whitaker’s out – and he takes it:

Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we. But we regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst.

This, of course is not enough for senior Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita, who blames Newsweek for the riots and the deaths, telling CNN: “People are dying. They are burning American flags. Our forces are in danger.” (Though query why it took the Pentagon so long to react to a 2-week old item that it had had on its desks prior to publication). It’s also not enough for everyone else, i.e. Newsweek‘s media brethren and the bloggers who police them all. Whitaker is on the hot seat, and this time it’s more serious than a doctored Martha Stewart cover or a picture of Boutros Boutros-Ghali that isn’t, in fact, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

So is it a retraction? Today, no; Whitaker told the NYT’s Kit Seelye that “We’re not retracting anything. We don’t know for certain what we got wrong.” Tomorrow, who knows: because as Jeff Jarvis points out, “neither do you know for certain what, if anything, you got right. That’s the problem.”

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