Rush to Blame Muslims Spoils a News Cycle
Glenn Greenwald has an excellent post describing the media’s attempt yesterday to pin the Oslo terrorist attacks on Muslims, only to try to redefine the attacks as not terrorism at all when it turned out it was a white, right-wing, anti-Muslim extremist that is apparently being blamed by the Norwegian police.
As yesterday’s coverage of the attacks unfolded, I spent most of the day watching the BBC’s live news stream. For the most part, they did an excellent job – as long as they stuck to the facts. The anchors themselves tended to be reluctant to go too far down the road of speculation. In fact, when the first reports surfaced about a shooting on Utøya island, and a BBC anchor wondered aloud whether they might be connected, the other anchor promptly scolded him about not wanting to overly speculate until they have a solid basis for reporting.
But when the BBC trotted out their “experts” on terrorism, the experts apparently felt no constraints on their speculation – and the BBC wasn’t interested in constraining them. One expert described three likely possibilities: (1) domestic right-wing terrorism; (2) Al-qaeda style Islamist terrorism; or (3) Libyan-sponsored terrorism. To his credit, one of his options apparently has turned out to be correct. But, alas, he did not stop with just listing multiple possibilities. There was no question what he believed to be the likely answer: option 2. He was dismissive of right-wing terrorism. Then, he claimed that it wasn’t likely Libyan terrorism because they simply did not have the capacity to launch an attack of this magnitude. The guy just kept repeating the notion that the attack had to involve many people and complicated logistics. Even as reports started to surface that it was one guy that had detonated the bomb and murdered children on Utøya, the guy kept spouting off about the size and complexity of the attack.
Another expert came on and did his best to push the Al-Qaeda angle. In a remarkable 30 second span that I tweeted about yesterday, the guy started by saying that we have no way of knowing who was responsible, then quickly noted that to him it “felt” like Islamist terrorism, and then quickly used his own feeling in that regard as the sole basis for then pontificating as if it was fact that this was Islamist terrorism. It was a great example of how quickly mere speculation becomes treated as fact by media members anxious to tell a story and pundits anxious to sound like they know it all. When the story started to filter out that a white, blonde man had been arrested, this same pundit ridiculously tried to stick with Al-Qaeda and asked the audience to ignore the fact that it was a white, blonde man that was responsible. He just kept going on with his own preferred theory and literally asked the audience to ignore any evidence that might undercut that theory.
These pundits – even on the relatively high-minded BBC – simply could not find it within themselves to get on TV and say, “We don’t have enough facts to speculate, and I simply don’t know enough to give you any answers.” I understand why. If a TV news pundit simply throws his hands up and says, “I don’t know,” then he will soon be an ex-pundit. When the camera gets turned on “experts,” it is turned on to them for answers. They comply.
The end result is that we end up with a spoiled news cycle. Unfortunately, the poison from that news cycle tends to reverberate. As Greenwald and others noted, the Washington Post has offered no corrections to articles on its website that falsely link the Oslo terrorist attacks to Muslim extremists. Because the Oslo story is a day old, many news agencies will be far less anxious to tell the story of this right-wing terrorist than they were to tell the story of Muslim terrorism yesterday. In the U.S., I can assure you that there will be a sizable chunk of people that will believe until the day they go to their grave that Muslims were responsible for yesterday’s attacks. Even people that hear the story of what actually happened will have it in the back of their mind – because of the first day’s reporting – that Muslim extremism was somehow at fault.
Yesterday’s coverage reinforces the notion that, while we have incredible access to instant information in the modern era, we do not always have equally quick access to the facts.