EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the June 6, 2005, issue of National Review.
To us old Fleet Street hands, Michael Isikoff will always be the guy who lost the Monica scoop. He had the Lewinsky story first, but his bosses at Newsweek killed it at the last minute. They wanted more sources, more corroboration: It’s all very well having presidential DNA on the intern’s cocktail dress, but we really need a second stain on a second dress before it would be responsible to run this thing. If you can’t get a second dress, the Columbia Journalism School Book of Media Ethics says it’s okay to make do with a cashmere sweater, as long as it’s in an approved pastel shade (the sweater, not the stain). The point is, on a big scoop like this, we need to get everything nailed down airtight, even if that means we don’t break it until, oh, somewhere round the middle of Al Gore’s second term.
So Isikoff lost his story, and Drudge broke it instead and made his name. Flash-forward seven years to the spring of 2005: Isikoff is still at work at Newsweek, possibly still working on trying to nail down his Monica scoop. Suddenly, “a knowledgeable U.S. government source” tips him off on a hot story: At Guantanamo Bay, interrogators got prisoners to talk by flushing a copy of the Koran down the toilet. Like all stories, this scoop immediately went through the full, exhaustive, ultra-rigorous Newsweek editing process. Thus, the spelling of “Koran” was changed to the more culturally sensitive “Qur’an.” A senior editor then took a further look at the controversial story and said, “Hmm. I dunno. Shouldn’t it be ‘Qu’ran’? Or maybe ‘Q’u'r-an’? I’d be happier if we could get a couple of extra apostrophes in there . . .”
And then they ran the story. And, as we now know, it sparked riots in Pakistan and elsewhere that left 15 people dead. And, unlike the fact-checked-to-death Monica story, the Qu’ran-down-the-to’ilet story turned out to be–what’s the word?–untrue.
As should have been obvious even to Isikoff and his colleagues. Is it possible to flush a Koran down the toilet? It takes a bit of effort to get even an average issue of Newsweek down and round the bend. I tried flushing Michael Isikoff’s Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story down there and wound up getting water all over my wingtips and squelching off in my socks to call a plumber. . .
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