Newsweek's bad streak hits home

First the Quran debacle, then magazine's dubious elevation of a local high school

May 21, 2005

by David Kopel

Michael Isikoff, the Newsweek editor responsible for the now-retracted story that American soldiers desecrated the Quran, really does know how to wait until there's sufficient evidence before running a story. On Jan. 22, 1998, Isikoff was asked on the Today show about rumors that Monica Lewinsky owned a dress stained with President Clinton's DNA. He answered, "I'm not going to report that until I have evidence that it is, in fact, true."

It would be nice if Newsweek had been similarly cautious regarding a story that appeared to confirm anti-American tales that al-Qaida activists have been spreading for years.

Locally, Newsweek's news judgment is also questionable. According to the magazine's May 16 issue, Denver's George Washington High School is the only high school in Colorado in the Top 100 nationally. Newsweek's metric was the percentage of graduates who take the advanced placement or international baccalaureate exams. Yet, as the Rocky Mountain News reported on Monday, only 63 percent of ninth-graders who start at George Washington graduate four years later. (The statistic is adjusted so that students who transfer to another high school are not counted one way or the other.)

Moreover, the percentage of students who take the exams is much less significant than the percentage who achieve adequate scores.

Newsweek, however, isn't the only publication to print "news" stories that aren't true. Consider the May 6 News article looking back at the 1992 state constitutional amendment prohibiting local or state pro-gay legislation. The Associated Press story began: "In 1992, a slim majority of Coloradans voted not to extend protection to gays from being arbitrarily fired from their jobs." What really happened was that by more than 100,000 votes, Coloradans decided to prohibit all forms of state or local laws favoring homosexuals.

The debate was over rolling back (not about extending) anti-discrimination laws which three cities had enacted; these municipal laws covered much more than employment. For example, housing ordinances made it illegal for a person to turn down a prospective roommate because the roommate was homosexual.

The News claimed that the constitutional amendment "never became law." In fact, the amendment went into effect on Dec. 16, 1992, after the secretary of state certified the election results.

The News wrote that Amendment 2 "briefly prompted an attempted boycott of Colorado by gay groups." The "brief" boycott lasted until October 1994, and was supported by many large organizations, such as the National League of Cities and the National Organization for Women.

Then, asserts the News, "The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the measure unconstitutional because it got in the way of home- rule cities' rights to continue their anti-discrimination ordinances." The U.S. Supreme Court ruling had nothing to do with home-rule powers. Rather, the court majority ruled that the state constitutional amendment irrationally discriminated against homosexuals, in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, by making it more difficult for them to push for state or local laws granting them protection against discrimination.

The Denver Post made a serious error by running Associated Press writer Peter Svensson's anti-Microsoft screed on May 9. Reviewing a beta version of the Open Office productivity suite, from Sun Microsystems, Svensson gushed that "The competition is back, and this time it's free." Actually, Sun has been competing with Microsoft by offering a free office productivity suite ever since the late 20th century.

Svensson contrasted Sun with Microsoft by claiming that "Microsoft loathes the idea of free software." In fact, Microsoft has given away many millions of copies of its Internet Explorer program.

But the part of the article that went beyond ignorant, and bordered on the criminal, was Svensson's sentence that "the Office edition for students and teachers costs $149, and no one's checking IDs." The sentence was, in essence, a suggestion that readers could get away with criminal fraud, by obtaining Office at a lower price even if they were not really students or teachers. There are times when newspapers should encourage the violation of unjust laws, but encouraging simple thievery is never appropriate.

Israel recently celebrated its 57th year of independence. The News and the Post (May 16) commemorated the occasion not with a story from Israel, but from the AP's Mohammed Daraghmeh detailing how Palestinians view the creation of Israel as a "black day." The story noted the "uprooting of hundreds of thousands of their [Palestinian] people with the 1948 creation of the state of Israel."

Actually, it wasn't Israel's declaration of statehood that uprooted the Palestinians; it was the war immediately launched by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia against Israel.

The Arab governments promised that after the Jews were driven into the sea, all the Jews' land and property could be taken. But instead of enjoying plunder, the Arabs who chose to leave Israel ended up in refugee camps. Israeli Independence Day may indeed be a black day for their descendants, but, at the least, the papers should have included the balancing perspective of some people who were glad that the Arab armies in 1948 failed in their effort to complete the job that Adolf Hitler had begun.

Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute, an attorney and author of 10 books.

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