There used to be, and to some extent still is, a lot to like about Andrew Bolt: he’s smart; his writing is clear and pointed; and he’s willing to battle with his critics, as subscribers to Crikey well know. Most importantly, he attacks the lazy and sanctimonious group-think mentality of some left journalists and politicians. In his chronicling of the hijack of Media Watch, his documenting the dangers and absurdities of radical religion, his fighting Victoria’s clumsy and stifling anti-discrimination laws, and on other issues, he’s been of real value.

But somewhere along the line, Bolt has taken on some of the cartoon character traits his critics attribute to him. Compelling evidence for this is Andrew’s 18 May column in the Herald Sun, “Murder by Media”, in which he blasts Newsweek for their publication of official confirmation of abuse of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay, and their subsequent retraction and apology. Bolt uses the column to bash the “Left-leaning media” and makes four key points:

1) Newsweek’s article was a “fabrication”, a “media lie”.
2) The article led to the deaths of protesters in Afghanistan.
3) The article was a result of bias of the “Left-leaning media.”
4) The claims of abuse were themselves implausible, failing to pass the “smell test.”

A couple of these claims are contentious, and the others are ludicrous. First, Andrew’s use of the word “fabrication” is ambiguous and it is much too complete a condemnation. The reasons for Newsweek’s apology and retraction are murkier than Andrew acknowledges and Newsweek chose their words carefully.

If Newsweek retracts their story it is fair to beat up on them, but is it then also fair to blame them for the deaths in Afghanistan? This is drawing a hell of a long bow, especially for one as attuned to the dangers of fundamentalist thought as is Andrew. He does say that some blame may also lie with those actually involved in the protests, but that’s not the thrust of the column…

How did Newsweek come to publish their story? Was it left bias? The suggestion is absurd, unless one defines “left” to mean “left of Fox News.” Newsweek is definitively not The Nation or The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker, all left publications which have been openly and fiercely critical of the Bush government on Iraq and terrorism. If Andrew picked on them, if he took Seymour Hersh or David Corn to task, he would still have to argue the facts, but he could at least fairly claim they were approaching the issues from a left perspective.

But Newsweek? Nonsense. Newsweek and Michael Isikoff, the co-writer of the Koran story, are thoroughly mainstream America. The Koran article is proof of nothing but Newsweek and Isikoff trying to get a good story on a secretive government. Isikoff is most famous for his reporting of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, eventually leading to Clinton’s impeachment. Does Andrew Bolt consider this as further evidence of Isikoff’s left bias, or was Isikoff simply having a bad day?

Finally, what about the actual claims of abuse? Newsweek, as Andrew writes, reported that “interrogators, in order to rattle prisoners, flushed a Qur’an down the toilet and led a detainee around with a collar and dog leash.” In fact, it is immediately reminiscent of the stench of Abu Ghraib, but Andrew latches onto to the expression “flush down the toilet,” claiming a Koran is too large for such an act. It is a pretty silly argument: one can imagine all sorts of acts which might briefly, albeit clumsily, be described in such a manner.

Is the claim of the desecration of the Koran at Guantanamo true? Only the Guantanamo prisoners and their interrogators know for sure. Andrew is careful not to claim otherwise, though his column seems deliberately written to give that impression. But what Andrew failed to tell his readers is that a number of released prisoners have made such claims, and that the International Committee for the Red Cross reported multiple instances of “disrespect” of the Koran to the US government in 2002 and 2003. Further, the ICRC reported that the US government “took corrective measures.” There is plenty of similar, circumstantial evidence.