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and I can't do a thing about it

Getting it wrong again…

It’s been a lot of years since the Oklahoma City bombing but it seems we have learned very little in the intervening years. If you remember, in the minutes and hours after the devastating blast, journalists and experts rushed to air and to print with the probability that the U.S. was attacked by Muslim extremists. It was an easy call, who else could commit such a heinous crime?

Today we know it was the work of homegrown terrorists. Right wing fanatics who see the American government as some sort of socialist conspiracy determined to take away their guns and their freedom (if only).

Now along comes an equally terrible story in Norway and the world press once again rushes to judgment. The Muslims have attacked Norway scream headlines in Britain and Europe and of course CNN and Fox bring in their expert annalists to point to al Qaida as the culprit.

What the heck is happening to journalism? When did we stop reporting the facts we knew and begin stooping to conjecture? Where are Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley now that it appears we need them most?

In case you missed it I have copied most of an article by Charlie Brooker from the Guardian online. Here it is:

The news coverage of the Norway mass-killings was fact-free conjecture
Let’s be absolutely clear, it wasn’t experts speculating, it was guessers guessing – and they were terrible
I went to bed in a terrible world and awoke inside a worse one. At the time of writing, details of the Norwegian atrocity are still emerging, although the identity of the perpetrator has now been confirmed and his motivation seems increasingly clear: a far-right anti-Muslim extremist who despised the ruling party.
On Friday night’s news, they were calling him something else. He was a suspected terror cell with probable links to al-Qaida. Countless security experts queued up to tell me so. This has all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida attack, they said. Watching at home, my gut feeling was that that didn’t add up. Why Norway? And why was it aimed so specifically at one political party? But hey, they’re the experts. They’re sitting there behind a caption with the word “EXPERT” on it. Every few minutes the anchor would ask, “What kind of picture is emerging?” or “What sense are you getting of who might be responsible?” and every few minutes they explained this was “almost certainly” the work of a highly-organised Islamist cell.
In the aftermath of the initial bombing, they proceeded to wrestle with the one key question: why do Muslims hate Norway? Luckily, the experts were on hand to expertly share their expert solutions to plug this apparent plot hole in the ongoing news narrative.
Why do Muslims hate Norway? There had to be a reason.
Norway was targeted because of its role in Afghanistan. Norway was targeted because Norwegian authorities had recently charged an extremist Muslim cleric. Norway was targeted because one of its newspapers had reprinted the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Norway was targeted because, compared to the US and UK, it is a “soft target” – in other words, they targeted it because no one expected them to.
When it became apparent that a shooting was under way on Utoya Island, the security experts upgraded their appraisal. This was no longer a Bali-style al-Qaida bombing, but a Mumbai-style al-Qaida massacre. On and on went the conjecture, on television, and in online newspapers, including this one. Meanwhile, on Twitter, word was quickly spreading that, according to eyewitnesses, the shooter on the island was a blond man who spoke Norwegian. At this point I decided my initial gut reservations about al-Qaida had probably been well founded. But who was I to contradict the security experts? A blond Norwegian gunman doesn’t fit the traditional profile, they said, so maybe we’ll need to reassess . . . but let’s not forget that al-Qaida have been making efforts to actively recruit “native” extremists: white folk who don’t arouse suspicion. So it’s probably still the Muslims.
Soon, the front page of Saturday’s Sun was rolling off the presses. “Al-Qaeda” Massacre: NORWAY’S 9/11 – the weasel quotes around the phrase “Al Qaeda” deemed sufficient to protect the paper from charges of jumping to conclusions.
By the time I went to bed, it had become clear to anyone within glancing distance of the internet that this had more in common with the 1995 Oklahoma bombing or the 1999 London nail-bombing campaign than the more recent horrors of al-Qaida.
While I slept, the bodycount continued to rise, reaching catastrophic proportions by the morning. The next morning I switched on the news and the al-Qaida talk had been largely dispensed with, and the pundits were now experts on far-right extremism, as though they’d been on a course and qualified for a diploma overnight.
Some remained scarily defiant in the face of the new unfolding reality. On Saturday morning I saw a Fox News anchor tell former US diplomat John Bolton that Norwegian police were saying this appeared to be an Oklahoma-style attack, then ask him how that squared with his earlier assessment that al-Qaida were involved. He was sceptical. It was still too early to leap to conclusions, he said. We should wait for all the facts before rushing to judgment. In other words: assume it’s the Muslims until it starts to look like it isn’t – at which point, continue to assume it’s them anyway.
If anyone reading this runs a news channel, please, don’t clog the airwaves with fact-free conjecture unless you’re going to replace the word “expert” with “guesser” and the word “speculate” with “guess”, so it’ll be absolutely clear that when the anchor asks the expert to speculate, they’re actually just asking a guesser to guess. Also, choose better guessers. Your guessers were terrible, like toddlers hypothesising how a helicopter works. I don’t know anything about international terrorism, but even I outguessed them.
As more information regarding the identity of the terrorist responsible for the massacre comes to light, articles attempting to explain his motives are starting to appear online. And beneath them are comments from readers, largely expressing outrage and horror. But there are a disturbing number that start, “What this lunatic did was awful, but . . .”
These “but” commenters then go on to discuss immigration, often with reference to a shaky Muslim-baiting story they’ve half-remembered from the press. So despite this being a story about an anti-Muslim extremist killing Norwegians who weren’t Muslim, they’ve managed to find a way to keep the finger of blame pointing at the Muslims, thereby following a narrative lead they’ve been fed for years, from the overall depiction of terrorism as an almost exclusively Islamic pursuit, outlined by “security experts” quick to see al-Qaida tentacles everywhere, to the fabricated tabloid fairytales about “Muslim-only loos” or local councils “banning Christmas”.

Also, here’s a small segment from a Christopher Hitchens commentary in Slate Magazine:
A Ridiculous Rapid Response
Why did so many “experts” declare the Oslo attacks to be the work of Islamic terrorists?
By Christopher HitchensPosted Sunday, July 24, 2011, Having had 16 years to reflect since Oklahoma City, we should really have become a little more refined in our rapid-response diagnoses of anti-civilian mass murder.
Here is a secular Scandinavian social democracy, which is currently contributing forces to Western military efforts in Afghanistan and Libya. This consideration was what originally led some more orthodox conservatives to descry a “link.” (Even though, for example, it is unclear whether the jihadist groups in Norway identify with Muammar Qaddafi or his recent calls for suicide efforts against NATO.) Moreover, the lethal attacks were launched against the youth movement of Norway’s ruling party, that stout bulwark of multi-culti good feelings and outreach to Muslim immigrants. This might not have been the first objective of a terror faction striving to take Norway off the military chessboard.

So, once again the free press of the democratic west found a way to get it completely wrong. We targeted the innocent before we had even the basic information needed to report on the Norwegian story. I guess it is more important for Fox or CNN to be first on the air with all of the answers than it is for them to be accurate. It’s important for all those newspaper and broadcast web sites to be on top of the latest breaking news. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Only in this case we chose the wrong targets and as usual we did not have the grace to apologize to the people we slandered or just as bad, to the millions of viewers, listeners and readers we mislead.

I often get criticized by some of my younger readers for questioning journalism and journalists in the 21st century. Sorry, but I have another question. How can you justify reporting on speculation rather than facts? When did the rules change? What happened to two independent sources?

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6 Responses

  1. Howard, apparently you are some sort of former journalist, and quite obviously an Islamic sympathizer. Or Thai. Wait. No. You like Thai food, I think. I know it’s one of those two things.

    You’ve also been to China more than once. Care to explain that?

    Seriously Howard, the one thing — and I get to say this because I turned my back on journalism a long time ago (and was never really that committed to it anyway, I was too eager to get to a career where I could make stuff up) — but I have because of my mouth been in a bunch of news stories in the last few years. I’ve been quoted, or more accurately misquoted, and been called upon as an “expert” a few times.

    Now granted, I have never been part of what I would call “hard news.” But what I’ve noticed over the last decade is that I have never seen a story which I had first hand knowledge of reported accurately. Never once.

    I also have noticed in the Canadian media, the rise of the single sourced story. Very, very rarely in any of the “beat” stories I see — be it medical, science, media, arts — do I see a story that is rigorously fact checked. They always get something wrong. And more often than not these days, it seems, they’re just rewriting press releases.

    I remember you bemoaning back in the 90’s the loss of ‘beat’ reporting and how assigning general reporters to cover complex stories hurt understanding. A friend of mine who’s an astrophysicist who works for the National Research Council in Victoria, says he hasn’t seen an accurate science story in the papers in over a decade.

    The slide started a long time ago. The battle is lost. ti’s all fiction now.

  2. Howard, What John Stewart showed on his show Monday night takes the cake. As is his custom when controversy strikes he showed some outrageous clips of the media weighing in with baseless information.
    When the first pictures of what’s his name came to light, it clearly showed the killer to be white. This “brilliant analyst” on Fox said this. “I can tell you that is a bnlliant disguise.”
    I actually began laughing until I realized the pity of it all.

  3. Keith says:

    I came to a rather similar conclusion about four years ago, after the shooting at Virginia Tech:

    Although I’m a great fan of the immediacy and “democratization” of the fourth estate as offered by electronic and online news services, there are some significant disadvantages, namely the immediacy and democratization.

    The whole post is at http://voltaire2006.blogspot.com/2007/04/good-evil-and-internet-assorted-musings.html

  4. I notice, Howard, that you (or at least a blog post you’d written) were quoted in an article in the Globe this weekend on Kirstine Stewart. It looks like Michael Posner just quoted liberally from a blog post. I had that done to me several times in my tenure of blogging too.

    Did Posner actually interview you or contact you, or did he just straight out cadge. I suspect it’s the latter, and once again a wonderful example of how little work today’s journos actually do preparing their pieces.

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