Fighting the Formulaic in Terrorism Coverage

Members of minority groups know the stomach-turning sensation when something awful happens and news media join the hunt for someone to blame.

Members of minority groups know the stomach-turning sensation when something awful happens and news media join the hunt for someone to blame.

Jews, Arab-Americans, Chicanos, Vietnamese immigrants and others all silently hope the perp wasn’t “one of ours.” 

It happened again with the massacre at Pulse, an Orlando, Fla. LGBTQ night club.

Authorities quickly identified the killer as Omar Mateen. Hours after police killed Mateen, Ron Hopper, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Orlando bureau, told CNN: “We do have suggestions that that individual may have leanings toward that particular ideology (Islamist terror) but we can’t say definitively.”

After 9/11 and more recent slaughters in Paris, San Bernardino, Calif. and Fort Hood, Texas, it was Mateen’s name that triggered anxieties in ways that the names of mass killers Timothy McVeigh, Dylann Roof or James Holmes didn’t. 

Mateen was born not far from Donald Trump’s home. He was as American as McVeigh, Roof and Holmes. That didn’t matter. Mateen’s name aroused frightening stereotypes. 

It was red meat for the news media and anti-immigrant politicians and organizations.  

That’s all it took. At first we didn’t know if he were an immigrant, an American convert, the son of immigrants or what. Mateen’s name launched a thousand speculations in the news media and online sites. 

Within days, nonstop news media coverage advanced speculation about the motivations for Mateen’s rampage. 

Experts on just about everything speculated that he acted because he was a Muslim, he was radical, he was a radical Muslim, he was a wife-beater, he was obsessed with gays, he was a closeted gay or his Afghan-immigrant father was pro-Taliban. 

To be fair to Hopper and reporters who accurately reported what the FBI agent said, Hopper might not have been stereotyping in the crudest, xenophobic way. 

He might have learned what the FBI already knew about Mateen from previous investigations that pointed toward the killer’s enthusiasms for Islamist organizations.  

Hopper might also already have been told about Mateen’s 911 calls while he slaughtered mainly gay men at Pulse for “Latin night.” 

Meanwhile, reporters swarmed the worlds of American Muslims as if there was collective guilt. Leaders of mosques and Muslim-American organizations issued heartfelt but obligatory condemnations of the killings but rejected any link between Islam and the Orlando slaughter.

A few representatives of these Muslim groups also bravely but wisely asked why any religious group should be expected to adjure violence by one distant member.  

Shakila Ahmad, president of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati Board, told The Enquirer, “We don’t do that with other races or other religions. We don’t hold other people accountable or even ask them” to condemn an attack. It’s a diplomatic way of telling reporters, “Fuck off.”

Of course, Cincinnati’s Ahmad is right, and her comments reflect the growing confidence of Muslims in America.

Nineteen years ago, the same rush to blame obsessed the news media after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. There, 168 men, women and children died.  

The initial search was for men who fit the stereotype of “Arab” or “Middle Eastern.” None were found because there were none.  

McVeigh, a white U.S. Army veteran, was executed for the mass murder at the Murrah building. Although he was raised a Roman Catholic, I don’t recall anyone calling him a “Christian terrorist.” 

Oklahoma City was an all-American attack by McVeigh and two white accomplices. Arabs, Iranians, Turks or other immigrants from Muslim-majority countries were not involved. None of the news media I followed demanded formulaic, traditional condemnations from militias, Catholic bishops, the NRA, the KKK, Christian Identity or anti-government groups in Idaho forests. 

Swarming minority groups however linked to mass killings in part reflects the way social media and news media nurture our national mania for simple answers to complex problems; the more we learn about Omar Mateen, the more complex his possible motivations appear. That, however, doesn’t cool the inclination to blame our bogeyman of the moment, the “Muslim terrorist.” 

It’s too early to assess the news media performance after Orlando, but four years after the 1995 Murrah attack, the American Journalism Review showed the way. It asked, “Did the media jump too quickly to speculate that the bombing was the work of Middle Eastern terrorists? Or were they simply reporting what federal law enforcement presumed for the first day-and-a-half after the explosion?”

Either way, “they blew it,” Jeff Cohen, executive director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), told AJR. His liberal group monitored coverage of the bombing. 

No matter what law enforcement said behind the scenes, the press went overboard on the Middle East angle and underplayed other scenarios, he told AJR.

In its appraisal, AJR found, “Within hours of the bombing, most network news reports featured comments from experts on Middle Eastern terrorism who said the blast was similar to the World Trade Center explosion two years earlier. Newspapers relied on many of those same experts and stressed the possibility of a Middle East connection. 

John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine, told AJR, “We were, as usual, following the lead of public officials, assuming that public officials are telling us the truth.” 

MacArthur said the news media overemphasized the possible Middle Eastern link and ignored domestic suspects because initially the police were not giving that angle much thought.

“Reporters can’t think without a cop telling them what to think,” MacArthur says. “If you are going to speculate wildly, why not say this is the anniversary of the Waco siege? Why isn’t that as plausible as bearded Arabs fleeing the scene?”

Most news organizations did mention other possible culprits, AJR added, and federal law enforcement officials cautioned reporters about naming potential suspects. The FBI agent in charge in Oklahoma City, Weldon Kennedy, said, “We have not ruled out any motive or any avenue of investigation at this point.” 

That wasn’t good enough in the heat of competitive journalism, AJR noted. “Authorities who couldn’t be quoted by name said their first suspicion was radical Islamic terrorists. Buttressing such comments was an all-points bulletin broadcast on the day of the blast describing the suspects as two men of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’ with ‘dark hair and beards.’ ”

That was 21 years ago. Plus ça change.  

Curmudgeon notes:

• There’s a category in ethics in which a positive action causes harm; it’s called “the double effect.” (This is not the same as the lesser of two evils.) At least for the news media, the fullest, most accurate identification of the 49 killed at the Orlando LGBTQ nightclub was positive. For police, there was no alternative: they saw the speed, accuracy and transparency of the IDs as praiseworthy. The harm? Some victims might not have been known to their families and coworkers as LGBTQ. Others might not have been LGBTQ but the circumstances — killed at Pulse, a popular LGBTQ night club — suggest they were. That also can have negative consequences. It was an inescapable risk of harm. 

• Context matters. Taken by itself, almost any political accusation reported in the news media can seem to make sense. However, when anchored in partisan history and reality, any political accusation repeated by the news media can sound unhinged. 

The latest example involves John McCain’s partisan attempt to revive the paranoid spirit of an old Republican anti-Communist slander. McCain told reporters that Obama is directly responsible for the Orlando slaughter. 

It’s the 2016 version of the Truman-era accusation that Democrats “lost” China to the Communists in 1949. Didn’t happen. Never was ours to lose. Chinese did it all by themselves. 

But anti-Communist paranoia was blossoming, and Republicans clung to the Lost China myth for decades.

Now, according to news media reports, McCain is attempting CPR on that kind of defamation. It would be silly if it weren’t serious. Here’s the Washington Post version of McCain’s accusation: 

“Barack Obama is directly responsible for it, because when he pulled everybody out of Iraq, al-Qaeda went to Syria, became ISIS, and ISIS is what it is today thanks to Barack Obama’s failures . . . He pulled everybody out of Iraq, and I predicted at the time that ISIS would go unchecked, and there would be attacks on the United States of America. It’s a matter of record, so he is directly responsible.”

Not to point a finger, but it wasn’t Obama who ordered our invasions of Iraq in 1990 and 2003. That was George Bush I and George Bush II. Those invasions destroyed the Iraqi government, national army and civil society, released continuing sectarian genocide and convinced many Sunni Iraqis that ISIL/ISIS was better than the Shia-created government. 

• Remember Quemoy and Matsu? Republicans treated the two islands as one word, sort of like “missilegap” or “damnyankee.” Not far from China, they became partisan symbols of our national “weakness” and Communist aggression during the Fifties. Quemoy and Matsu no longer figure in today’s political epithets. Instead, Trump is using new pairs — Jose and Maria, Layla and Samir — to illustrate American impotence. The NYTimes had a smart, restrained Page 1 analysis of Trump’s reliance on traditional American popular fears. I’d add that it’s time to reread Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics.

• Here’s a proposal: News media should group American homicide victims from any two typical days for Page 1 coverage. That would be about 60.  With rare exception, they’ll be victims of someone they know. Few are killed by strangers or in mass shootings. They are far likelier to fall victim to handguns than assault-style rifles or carbines. According to the CDC homicide rates, we shoot each other to death at the rate of about 10,000 a year. It’s what I like to call AWOL, the American Way of Life. And that’s not counting the roughly 20,000 Americans who kill themselves with some kind of gun. 

• Russian intelligence operatives reportedly hacked the Democratic National Committee’s computer and its trove of opposition research on Donald Trump and other GOP presidential aspirants. Russians noodled around the Dem’s stuff for a year before anyone caught on. What’s missing in this story? Context. 

As far as we know — and the GOP would tell us if it knew — no one hacked Hillary’s private servers during her years as secretary of state.

• I had to laugh when the London-based weekly Economist devoted a cover story to the worldwide suppression of speech. Missing was any candid assessment of ways Great Britain has criminalized everyday speech and some ethnic traditions. Being rude can bring a police warning or worse, especially if the aggrieved party is not a white Anglican British male. 

The latest absurdity involves a famous former soccer star, Paul Gascoigne, who is being investigated by West Midlands police for what coppers call a hate crime. The Guardian said Gascoigne told a black security guard standing against a black background, “If you weren’t smiling, I wouldn’t be able to see you.” 

• Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy says, “The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls” in the year before the primaries. Shorenstein based its judgment on “thousands of news statements by CBS, Fox, The Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.”

Shorenstein explained the news media’s early fascination with Trump this way: “Journalists were behaving in their normal way. Although journalists play a political brokering role in presidential primaries, their decisions are driven by news values rather than political values.  Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational—the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch.”


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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