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Sparing Spikey

The ConWeb bashes Newsweek for the Quran-in-the-toilet article -- but shies away from criticizing by name the guy who wrote it, Michael Isikoff. Is it a reward for Isikoff's ConWeb-friendly Clinton scandal coverage?

By Terry Krepel
Posted 5/20/2005

The ConWeb's hue and cry over the retracted Newsweek story regarding claims that a Quran was thrown in a toilet was predictable. What may have not been predictable, but perhaps should have been, are the ConWeb's efforts to shield the reporter at the center of the controversy.

Michael Isikoff, who co-wrote the Newsweek piece in question, was a ConWeb darling in the late 1990s for his reporting on of the seamier Clinton sex scandals, hanging out with dubious scandalmongers such as Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Lucianne Goldberg and Linda Tripp. That may be why even as the ConWeb excoriates Newsweek, it has been unusually loath to criticize Isikoff by name, even as it repeatedly dredges up Dan Rather's name for yet another beating-by-association.

Brent Bozell and the Media Research Center appear to be the leaders of the Isikoff protection racket. A May 16 MRC press release excoriating Newsweek, mentioning Dan Rather in its eagerness to link the incident with the CBS Bush National Guard memo scandal -- but doesn't mention Isikoff at all. A May 16 CyberAlert blasted Newsweek's "sloppy reporting" but didn't criticize Isikoff -- the reporter -- by name; neither do the CyberAlerts of May 17 and May 18.

Bozell's May 18 column, which attempts to parallel the Newsweek and CBS cases, contains several references to Rather but none to Isikoff. More evidence of Bozell's shielding comes from his May 16 comment on Sean Hannity's radio show: "One would be hard-pressed to lay the blame directly at the feet of Michael Isikoff. Michael Isikoff is also the reporter who broke the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story for Newsweek magazine."

News reports at the MRC's on May 16 and May 17 and May 18 also fail to mention Isikoff. A May 17 "Fact-o-Rama" details Isikoff's link to the Lewinsky story but says nothing about his connection to the Quran piece, presumably the reason for running the "Fact-O-Rama" in the first place. Rich Galen, in a May 18 CNS column, notes that at an event at which both he and Isikoff spoke, "I called Isikoff 'the best investigative reporter on the planet.'" Galen then added, presumably to add some amount of moral indignance: "Not infallible, but the best."

The harshest words at CNS (or any MRC-operated outlet) come from Frank Salvato, who wrote in a May 16 commentary that "Isikoff and Berry -- and to a certain extent Newsweek -- should be held accountable for the 16 deaths in Afghanistan."

WorldNetDaily has mostly been hands off on Isikoff as well. A May 17 column by Dennis Prager claiming that "Newsweek put politics and craving a scoop ahead of truth, not to mention ahead of America's security" did not mention Isikoff, though he likened the case to "Dan Rather and CBS News." A May 18 Newsweek bashing column by Burt Prelutsky also fails to mention Isikoff. A May 18 column by Jack Cashill (the guy who tried to whitewash the crimes of a guilty man) calls Isikoff an "ace reporter" but slams him for ignoring Cashill's conspiracy theories. A May 19 column by Hal Lindsey also fails to mention Isikoff. A May 17 WND article by Aaron Klein that attempts a double-standard spin by accusing Muslims of having no respect for the holy artifacts of other religions also fails to mention Isikoff.

WND also drags out one of its hoary old chestnuts, the bogus online poll, to beat up further on Newsweek in a May 19 article, which introduces the first direct criticism of Isikoff on its "news" pages by noting that some "poll" participants "took direct aim at Michael Isikoff." It quoted one commenter as saying: "Writing a story based on lies and innuendo and unproven 'facts' is not journalism and is not doing his job."

Somebody please send a copy of that comment to WND editor Joseph Farah, who spent his May 19 column titled "The irresponsible 'mainstream' media" claiming how much better the "New Media" is than the "arrogant 'mainstream' media" and that Newsweek published "a phony story." He added: "The New Media are not infallible, but the Old Media no longer have any grounds for their arrogance, for their phony claims to superior standards."

Given Farah's and WND's history of lies and distortions, and given the fact that WND rather recently published a "phony story" it was forced to retract, Farah is perhaps the last person on the planet who should be assailing other news outlets for alleged arrogance and irresponsibility.

NewsMax, meanwhile, has been its usual schizophrenic self. A May 16 article pulls the selective memory trick, quoting Myers' claim that a detainee flushed the Quran while ignoring his statement that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers said in a May 12 press briefing that the violence was "not at all tied to the article in the magazine."

A May 17 item rushes to Isikoff's defense, quoting Lucianne Goldberg, of all people, praising his reporting skills. NewsMax adds: "Clearly, Issikoff's [sic] comments and explanation for the debacle appear to be far more responsible than his magazine's."

Similarly, a May 17 column by Phil Brennan praises Isikoff as a "highly respected investigative reporter," then goes on to call a Newsweek editor "oleaginous" and claiming that Newsweek (but not Isikoff) is "nothing other than an irresponsible liberal outlet of anti-Iraq war propaganda." A May 18 column by Joan Swirsky mentioned Isikoff as author but didn't criticize him herself, merely copying cricisim from an article by Rich Lowry.

A May 19 article by Brennan and " staff" also fails to mention Isikoff but attacks a dead person, former Washington Post publisher and Newsweek owner Katherine Graham, for promoting "politics-as-journalism-style reporting." How is that any different from NewsMax, which published news articles promoting a candidate to whom its editor and CEO donated campaign cash?

The only actual criticism of Isikoff at NewsMax is a May 16 column by Barrett Kalellis, who calls Isikoff and co-author John Barry "liberals-for-hire."

They've also been spinning furiously over at Accuracy in Media. AIM press releases insist that "all of the Newsweek editors and reporters who had any hand in the bogus Koran-in-the-toilet story should be held accountable," that there be a "housecleaning" and that the magazine should "compensate the victims" of the violence, but only one mentions Isikoff by name.

The general hands-off attitude toward Isikoff may stem from how much the ConWeb has loved Isikoff's past work.

MRC approvingly cited a 1997 appearance by Isikoff on ABC's "Good Morning America," where he defended independent counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of Clinton. Another 1997 MRC piece quotes Isikoff saying that the Washington Post, where he formerly worked, held the accusations made against Clinton by Paula Jones, on which he reported for the Post, to "a higher standard of proof" than it did the accusations of sexual harrassment Anita Hill made against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearing to be a Supreme Court justice. And a 1998 CyberAlert detailed how the media "refused ... to do their jobs" and echo Isikoff's reporting on the charges made against Clinton by the admitted liar Kathleen Willey.

NewsMax's Carl Limbacher cited Isikoff's Clinton reporting in a December 1998 article, and various and sundry Clinton-bashing from Isikoff's 1999 book "Uncovering Clinton" is excerpted in several NewsMax articles. NewsMax also dedicated a 2004 article to Isikoff's pointing out of an "array of errors" in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."

A December 2000 WND column by Bill Steigerwald of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (you know, Richard Mellon Scaife's paper) called Isikoff one of two reporters that do "Newsweek's best work." And a May 1999 interview with Lucianne Goldberg noted that "Lucianne affectionately dubbed Mike Isikoff 'Spikey.'"

AIM, too, has been a supporter of Isikoff's past coverage of Clinton. A 1999 article laments "the problems Michael Isikoff had in trying to get The Washington Post to publish his Paula Jones story in 1994."

On the other hand, both MRC and NewsMax have previously been quick to attack Isikoff when his reporting didn't serve their purposes. A January 2000 CyberAlert noted that Isikoff "portrayed George W. Bush's unprecedented fundraising success as somehow sinister by implying that the Texas governor was a pawn of big business and "successful middle-aged white men." A March 2000 CyberAlert noted that Isikoff "blew John McCain another wet kiss" in an article. A November 2000 op-ed by the MRC's Tim Graham, while calling Isikoff a "former Clinton White House hate object," complained that an article Isikoff co-wrote about the Florida election battle was "two parts attitude for every part reporting." And an August 2001 CyberAlert complained that Isikoff "falsely" called California congressman Gary Condit a "conservative Democrat."

And in response to a review Isikoff did for trashing NewsMax chief Christopher Ruddy's book "The Strange Death of Vincent Foster" (Isikoff called the book "utterly preposterous" and "turgidly written") NewsMax reprinted a 1997 attack on the review, which called it "shrill, at times almost hysterical," written "using a pen dipped in acid" and suggested that Isikoff was envious of Ruddy.

Amid all of this copious Newsweek-bashing, however, there are still questions about just how culpable the Newsweek article really was in sparking the violence in Afghanistan and other countries to which it has been linked, resulting in the deaths of approximately 15.

A May 15 WND story (which did mention Isikoff), typical of ConWeb coverage, asserts that the killed rioters were "the toll to date for a brief story about a U.S. prison guard throwing a Quran down the toilet -- a story Newsweek now admits it got wrong, and one being blasted as 'criminal' and 'treasonous.'" (The guy WND quoted calling Newsweek "treasonous," Fox News military analyst David Hunt, recently repeated a false smear of Jane Fonda, so he's about as trustworthy as WND on such matters.) But it failed to mention that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Myers' said in a May 12 statement that the violence was "not at all tied to the article in the magazine," but instead was "more tied up in the political process and the reconciliation process that President [Hamid] Karzai and his Cabinet is conducting in Afghanistan." And Media Matters notes that NBC News reported that the violence is also a reaction to Karzai's desire for closer ties with the United States.

Then, WND contradicts that report with a May 18 report by Aaron Klein claiming that the protests "were planned several months ago with the magazine article serving as a convenient trigger."

And a May 18 AIM press release tries to spin Myers' comment that the rioting was "not at all tied to the article," claiming it applied to riots in only one city. However, AIM offers no evidence that the article was the sole cause of rioting anywhere.

Plus, there are reports indicating that there may be something after all to allegations that U.S. interrogators disrespecting the Qurans of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, such as the one that got Newsweek into all this trouble.

So, what are we to believe? Are the protests Newsweek's fault or not? A real news organization would try to get to get the whole story before assigning blame for people's deaths. But the MRC, NewsMax, WorldNetDaily and AIM are not the kind of organizations that is interested in the whole story, especially when it runs counter to their preconceived conclusions.

The ConWeb's loyalties are divided: they avoid criticizing Isikoff to the extent they criticized Dan Rather, even though Isikoff's culpability for the retracted story is at least as much as Rather's for the CBS memos piece, while it bashes Isikoff's employer to keep up the evil-liberal-media meme it must perpetuate. They're too busy with all of that to get to the truth of the issue.

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