As George Orwell put it, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” To which we might add, “He who controls the U.S. government controls Newsweek. And so yesterday in good Orwellian fashion, Newsweek has taken its May 1 news item—about interrogators at Guantanamo flushing a Koran down a toilet—and flushed it down the memory hole, sort of.
Yet the story hasn’t disappeared; Newsweek has left the original offending piece on its website. Moreover, every interested party in Washington has been told, sotto voce, that the magazine has merely “bowed to pressure,” as opposed to having had a genuine change of heart. And “pressure” is surely the right word: pressure from the Bush administration, from rival media outlets and bloggers, from hawkish readers and advertisers threatening boycotts—and also, one suspects, from the always-watchful Graham family, whose major media property, The Washington Post, had developed a strongly pro-Bush editorial voice.
But despite all that pressure, Michael Isikoff, the reporter responsible for the item, maintains that there was “absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here.” And the magazine is reportedly behind Isikoff “100 percent,” having rejected his offer to resign.
So Newsweek offers its own version of “doublethink,” which Orwell described in 1984 as the ability “to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies.” That’s Newsweek’s contribution to Newspeak: the non-retracting retraction. Meanwhile, Newsweek promises to investigate itself: but who is going to believe anything the magazine prints now about this matter, no matter which way it goes?
It’s still possible that Newsweek will crater completely, that it will eventually be forced to offer up the professional heads of some editors and reporters. But many other media outlets—including The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer—have reported the same basic story over the past two years. Are they, to use yet another apt Orwellian phrase, to be judged to be guilty of similar “thoughtcrimes”?
And of course, there’s that quaintly lingering notion known as reality. What actually happened in Gitmo? That’s a truth, whatever it is, that nobody seems able to handle right now.