On one of the classic movie channels this weekend, Ryan O'Neal reminded me that "Love means never having to say you're sorry." He didn't make clear what love means when it comes to retractions. 

Sunday, Newsweek said it was sorry -– but was not retracting its story about alleged desecration of the Quran by American troops at Guantanamo Bay. Late Monday the magazine was still sorry and ready to take back its story. 

Between Newsweek's initial acknowledgment over the weekend that it had gotten the story wrong and its eventual abandonment of any accuracy claim, some interesting distinctions surfaced, even as the magazine's story went right down the tubes:

  • The distinction between something unproven and something proven untrue

  • The distinction between relying on a source who confirms an account and relying on a source who doesn't dispute an account 

  • The distinction between an apology and a retraction

What matters most is, sadly, beyond dispute: According to accounts from Afghanistan, at least 15 people died in riots that erupted after the Newsweek report. Only the magazine itself seemed to leave room for much doubt about the role it played, asking in Monday's column by editor Mark Whitaker, "Did a report in Newsweek set off a wave of deadly anti-American riots in Afghanistan?"

Every other story I saw in the first several days after those riots began referred without attribution to the magazine's report as the established cause of the violence. Monday night, following Newsweek's retraction, coverage of the controversy began to provide more context, referring to the lingering effects of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the already-volatile political climate in Afghanistan. Whitaker told Ted Koppel on "Nightline" that Newsweek's story was "the match that lit that tinder." By Tuesday morning, ABC News was attributing to the Bush administration the conclusion that the riots were a direct response to the magazine story.

"There is no more serious charge you can make against a news organization:  An erroneous story led to deaths," said "Fox News Watch" host Eric Burns. 

Tim Russert of NBC didn't even bother with words like "charge" in his appearance on "Today": "People died as a result of that story."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan was "puzzled" by Newsweek's initial refusal to issue an actual retraction, even as its editor said, "We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst."

I predict puzzlement will be one of the kinder reactions to this latest crisis of credibility for the American news media. Several hours before the magazine upgraded its remorse to full retraction status, Buzzmachine.com's Jeff Jarvis told an interviewer, the public's "trust of journalism is in tatters." On his blog, he elaborated:

That's why Newsweek's nonretraction-retraction is going to continue to cause problems and is just as bad as CBS's nonretraction-retraction in the Rather story, except this one is dangerous. They should have said that they retract the story because they do not have any reason to know that it is true. We are not in the business of reporting what might be true, what could be true if only we know more. We are in the business of reporting what we know is true. Aren't we?
Michael Isikoff, Newsweek's principal reporter on the original story, told The Wall Street Journal his main source was "good and credible." Yet, as of Saturday, that source "could no longer be sure," according to The Washington Post, which quotes Isikoff as saying, "Obviously we all feel horrible about what flowed from this, but it's important to remember there was absolutely no lapse in journalistic standards here."

Newsweek editor Whitaker's Monday column said, "before deciding whether to publish (the Quran claim) we approached two separate Defense Department officials for comment. One declined to give us a response; the other challenged another aspect of the story but did not dispute" the Quran charge. 

Saying somebody "did not dispute" something is far from saying somebody confirmed it. And the magazine's second source "lacked detailed knowledge," Newsweek now says, according to The New York Times.

This controversy looks even more serious than "Memogate." Independent investigators found CBS showed "myopic zeal" in rushing to air its story about the National Guard service of George W. Bush.  Sourcing was the problem there, too. But nobody died. The question of the story's actual accuracy remains unresolved, and nobody acts interested in resolving it these days. 

The ripple effect of Newsweek's flushing fiasco won't subside for quite some time. Whitaker did neither himself nor his magazine any favors with the early indignation he expressed to The New York Times when he said, "We're not retracting anything. We don't know what the ultimate facts are." 

In his column, Whitaker said Monday, "Top administration officials have promised to continue looking into the charges, and so will we." It's likely the magazine will have to look a lot harder this time to find sources willing to cooperate and readers willing to believe. 

It seems at least that Whitaker's defensiveness didn't last as long as Dan Rather's did in the immediate aftermath of the "60 Minutes Wednesday" story. On the other hand, having bloggers attack you may not be all that bad, compared with having rioting Afghans believe you.