Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
May 17, 2005
12:46 P.M. EDT
Q Scott, you said that the retraction by Newsweek magazine of its story is a good first step. What else does the President want this American magazine to do?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's what I talked about yesterday. This report, which Newsweek has now retracted and said was wrong, has had serious consequences. People did lose their lives. The image of the United States abroad has been damaged; there is lasting damage to our image because of this report. And we would encourage Newsweek to do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done, particularly in the region.
And I think Newsweek can do that by talking about the way they got this wrong, and pointing out what the policies and practices of the United States military are when it comes to the handling of the Holy Koran. The military put in place policies and procedures to make sure that the Koran was handled -- or is handled with the utmost care and respect. And I think it would help to point that out, because some have taken this report -- those that are opposed to the United States -- some have taken this report and exploited it and used it to incite violence.
Q With respect, who made you the editor of Newsweek? Do you think it's appropriate for you, at that podium, speaking with the authority of the President of the United States, to tell an American magazine what they should print?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not telling them. I'm saying that we would encourage them to help --
Q You're pressuring them.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm saying that we would encourage them --
Q It's not pressure?
MR. McCLELLAN: Look, this report caused serious damage to the image of the United States abroad. And Newsweek has said that they got it wrong. I think Newsweek recognizes the responsibility they have. We appreciate the step that they took by retracting the story. Now we would encourage them to move forward and do all that they can to help repair the damage that has been done by this report. And that's all I'm saying. But, no, you're absolutely right, it's not my position to get into telling people what they can and cannot report.
Q Back on Newsweek. Richard Myers, last Thursday -- I'm going to read you a quote from him. He said, "It's a judgment of our commander in Afghanistan, General Eichenberry, that in fact the violence that we saw in Jalalabad was not necessarily the result of the allegations about disrespect for the Koran." He said it was "more tied up in the political process and reconciliation that President Karzai and his cabinet were conducting." And he said that that was from an after-action report he got that day.
So what has changed between last Thursday and today, five days later, to make you now think that those -- that that violence was a result of Newsweek?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, clearly, the report was used to incite violence by people who oppose the United States and want to mischaracterize the values and the views of the United States of America. The protests may have been pre-staged by those who oppose the United States and who may be opposed to moving forward on freedom and democracy in the region, but the images that we have seen across our television screens over the last few days clearly show that this report was used to incite violence. People lost their lives --
Q But may I just follow up, please? He didn't say "protest," he said -- he used the word very specifically, "violence." He said the violence, as far as they know from their people on the ground -- which is something that you always say you respect wholeheartedly -- it was not because of Newsweek.
MR. McCLELLAN: Dana, I guess I'm not looking at it the same way as you do, and I think the Department of Defense has spoken to this issue over the last few days. But the facts are very clear that this report was used in the region by people opposed to the United States to incite violence and to portray a very negative image of the United States, one that runs contrary to everything that we value and believe, and it has done some serious damage to our image.
Q You don't think there's any way that perhaps you're looking at it a little bit differently, now that you understand that the Newsweek report is false?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think you can go look at just about every news report that has covered this and they have pointed out that this report, itself, helped spark some violence in the region.
Q Scott, to go back to Dana's question, are you saying that General Myers was wrong, therefore, that this -- the violence he's talking about? Are you saying he was wrong in his assessment of what happened in Afghanistan?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, not at all. In fact, maybe you didn't hear me, but as I said, there are people that are opposed to the United States that look at every opportunity to try to do damage to our image in the region, and --
Q Okay --
MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on, let me finish -- and this report gave the additional material to incite violence, and additional material to exploit in the region. The report was wrong. Newsweek has stated that it was wrong. And there has been some lasting damage that has been done to our image because of this report. And it's going to take some work to repair that damage. And that's why we would encourage Newsweek to do its part to help repair the damage.
Q Let me follow up on that. What -- you said that -- what specifically are you asking Newsweek to do? I mean, to follow up on Terry's question, are you saying they should write a story? Are you going that far? How else can Newsweek, you know, satisfy you here?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as I said, we would encourage them to continue working diligently to help repair the damage that has been done because of this --
Q Are you asking them to write a story?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- because of this report. I think Newsweek is going to be in the best position to determine how to achieve that. And there are ways that I pointed out that they can help repair the damage. One way is to point out what the policies and practices of our United States military are. Our United States military personnel go out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care --
Q Are you asking them to write a story about how great the American military is; is that what you're saying here?
MR. McCLELLAN: Elisabeth, let me finish my sentence. Our military --
Q You've already said what you're -- I know what -- how it ends.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm coming to your question, and you're not letting me have a chance to respond. But our military goes out of their way to handle the Koran with care and respect. There are policies and practices that are in place. This report was wrong. Newsweek, itself, stated that it was wrong. And so now I think it's incumbent and -- incumbent upon Newsweek to do their part to help repair the damage. And they can do that through ways that they see best, but one way that would be good would be to point out what the policies and practices are in that part of the world, because it's in that region where this report has been exploited and used to cause lasting damage to the image of the United States of America. It has had serious consequences. And so that's all I'm saying, is that we would encourage them to take steps to help repair the damage. And I think that they recognize the importance of doing that. That's all I'm saying.
Q As far as the Newsweek article is concerned, first, how and where the story came from? And do you think somebody can investigate if it really happened at the base, and who told Newsweek? Because somebody wrote a story.
MR. McCLELLAN: I think Newsweek has talked about it. They took it --
Q And second thing is that it's not only Newsweek story. In the past, well-known people who can make and break a society, they make statements against other religions, like Mr. Pat Robertson against Hinduism in the past. How can we prepare for the future all these stories, it doesn't happen again in the future? Do you think the President can come out and make sure, because that's what the Muslims are calling on the President to come out --
MR. McCLELLAN: We have to continue speaking out about the values that the United States stands for. And one value that we stand very strongly for is religious freedom. We believe all people should be able to practice their religion as they see fit. And we welcome a diversity of views. We welcome all those who -- well, I mean, we believe that religious freedom is at the heart of this issue here. And some people have taken this report and mischaracterized what we stand for here in America. So we're going to continue reaching out to people in the Muslim world and talking about what we believe in and what we stand for, and the values that we hold so dearly.
And in terms of what we're doing already, we're also asking our friends in the region to help make sure that that message gets out there, the message of what we believe in and what we stand for here in the United States, and the policies and practices that our military follows. Our military goes to great length to show the utmost respect for the Holy Koran and for the ability of detainees to worship freely. And I think that's something we will continue to point out.
In terms of the first question, I think that Newsweek talked about it yesterday; they talked about what went wrong, they talked about how this was based on a single, anonymous source, and they retracted the story, said it was wrong, and they shouldn't have gone with the story in the first place.
Q Just to follow quickly --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me keep going. Terry, go ahead.
Q Scott, is this whole conversation about Newsweek and the White House, is this going on just in the media, or are White House officials talking to editors at Newsweek about what they think should be done?
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm not aware of any such conversations, other than what I've said publicly. I know Newsweek did reach out to the Department of Defense to talk about the story, when they realized that they may have gotten it wrong. And they've since taken some steps, and we appreciate the step that they took yesterday.
Q But you are not being any more specific with editors of Newsweek about what you think -- I mean, in a sort of one-to-one way, about --
MR. McCLELLAN: No, look, I mean, Newsweek is going to have to make those determinations. All we're saying is that we would encourage them to help undo the damage that has been done. Some of it's not going to be able to be undone, some of it is lasting. But we would just simply encourage Newsweek to do what they can to help repair the damage that was done in the region. And Newsweek certainly has the ability to do that. They are a widely-published magazine.
Q Scott, just real quickly --
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, April.
Q Scott, on the issue of lasting damage in the Muslim world, you keep talking about that, but is there concern that the damage could trickle from the Muslim world back here to the United States? Like 9/11 was considered a jihad over religious beliefs, do you think -- is that some of the lasting and irreparable damage that this White House is talking about that could happen?
MR. McCLELLAN: I didn't quite look at it in those terms, April. I just haven't looked at it. I mean, this report -- this was about a report that was wrong and that Newsweek has since retracted. It has caused damage to us. What we've got to do is continue to reach out through public diplomacy efforts to the Muslim world and talk about our policies and talk about our values. And that's what we're going to continue to do, because I think that all people across the world want to live in freedom, and that is one of the values that is at the forefront of our foreign policy.
Q In context of the Newsweek situation, I think we hear the caution you're giving us about reporting things based on a single anonymous source. What, then, are we supposed to do with information that this White House gives us under the conditions that it comes from a single anonymous source?
MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure what exactly you're referring to.
Q Frequent briefings by senior administration officials in which the ground rules are we can only identify them as a single anonymous source.
MR. McCLELLAN: Ken, I know that there is an issue when it comes to the media in terms of the use of anonymous sources, but the issue is not related to background briefings. But I do believe that we should work to move away from those kind of background briefings. I've been working with the bureau chiefs on that very issue. And I think we have taken some steps, and I think you have noticed that.
But there is a credibility problem in the media regarding the use of anonymous sources, but it's because of fabricated stories, and it's because of situations like this one over the weekend. It's not because of the background briefings that you may be referring to.
Q What prevents this administration from just saying from this point forward, you will identify who it is that's talking to us?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in terms of background briefings, if that's what you're asking about, which I assume it is, let me point out that what I'm talking about there are officials who are helping to provide context to on-the-record comments made by people like the President or the Secretary of State or others. I don't think that that is the issue here when it comes to the use or widespread use of anonymous sources by the media. I think it's --
MR. McCLELLAN: Let me finish -- I think it's a much larger issue. And as I said, one of the concerns is that some media organizations have used anonymous sources that are hiding behind that anonymity in order to generate negative attacks.
Q But to our readers, viewers and listeners, I think it's all the same.
MR. McCLELLAN: And then you have a situation -- you have a situation where we found out later that quotes were attributed to people that they didn't make. Or you have a situation where you now learn that a single source was used for verifying this allegation -- and that source, himself, said he could not personally verify the accuracy of the report. And I think that that's -- you know, that's one of the issue that concerns the American people when they look at the media, and I think sometimes the media does have difficulty going back and kind of critiquing itself. And sometimes it's convenient for the media to point to others or to point to something other than internally. I think it's an issue that they need to work to address internally, and we'll work to address from our standpoint, as well. And those bureau chiefs that I met with have indicated that it is a problem that they're working to address internally, as well.
So I think we need to talk about the larger issue here when we talk about it.
Q With all due respect, though, it sounds like you're saying your single anonymous sources are okay and everyone else's aren't.
MR. McCLELLAN: No, I'm not saying that at all. In fact, I think you may have missed what I said. I think that we should move away from the use of -- the long-used practice of the background briefings, and we've taken steps to do that. But I was putting in context what these background briefings that you're referring to are about. They're about individuals providing context to remarks or policies that may have been implemented by the administration, and you have other officials on the record talking about --
Q Sometimes you do --
MR. McCLELLAN: -- hang on -- talking about those policies. You also have incidents, or instances, where individuals are providing context to meetings with world leaders, and there's some diplomatic sensitivities involved there.
Q We also have incidents, like most recently with the energy speech, where it was before the President made his comments, it was all we had -- and we had to make the decision of whether to report this from anonymous sources who, frankly, in that case, we didn't even know who they were.
MR. McCLELLAN: This is one of the issues that I sat down and discussed with the bureau chiefs. I think it's best to kind of have those discussions with the bureau chiefs; I did. We've made some progress. I think they had a legitimate issue that they brought up. But there's a larger issue here. Let's not point to the background briefings as the problem with the credibility in the media about using anonymous sources, because it's a much larger issue than that, Ken. And I think you recognize that.
In terms of that one, I mean, that was simply done because the President was making the announcement the next day. But, anyway, we've taken steps to address that matter.
Q In terms of Newsweek, I know you're saying that you made some recommendations of what you'd like to see Newsweek do. Has there been any discussion either out of the Pentagon or the State Department in sort of an equal time situation where they produce copy stating the U.S. policy on treating the Koran?
MR. McCLELLAN: None that I'm aware of. We're just simply saying we would encourage them to help undo the damage that can be undone, to take steps to help repair the damage that was done by this report. I think they recognize the responsibility they have in that regard, as well.
Q But in terms of any articles that would specifically be solely produced by Newsweek and have no input of --
MR. McCLELLAN: No. I guess you're making that suggestion here, but, no, we haven't had any discussion.