Notebook, 23 July 2011: Where the press goes . . . anyone know where that might be?

Well, she went there.

Jennifer Rubin, writing for The Washington Post, didn’t wait for facts to emerge, couldn’t restrain her impulse to giver her inner demons sway, but went right for the jugular—her own as it turns out:

Norway Bombing:

A massive explosion rocked a government district in Norway’s capital Friday, killing seven people and injuring many more, and a shooter at a political convention on an island north of Oslo appeared to have inflicted more casualties, in incidents police are treating as connected, a police spokesman said.

Thomas Joscelyn explains at the Weekly Standard Web site:

Just one year ago, authorities in Oslo broke up an al Qaeda-directed bomb plot that originated in northern Pakistan. Good intelligence, including intercepted emails between an al Qaeda planner and the Oslo cell, prevented the plotters from assembling and launching their bomb. . . .

Oslo was not as fortunate today. . . .

We don’t know if al Qaeda was directly responsible for today’s events, but in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra. Prominent jihadists have already claimed online that the attack is payback for Norway’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
(Emphasis mine.)


The piece was posted at 5:06 PM Eastern, so it’s not like there wasn’t information available. There certainly was though not all of it was reliable. Plenty of misinformation out there as well, but on the whole, the twitter-verse following the story (I was following Blake Hounshell who, on the whole did a great job) was on top of spotting the fake video of a second explosion as well as noting the suspicious character of Breivik’s Facebook page. As I read the tweets, this information was available to me within minutes of both pieces being made known. Quite literally, minutes.

Some people, like Rubin, were very quick playing up the al Qaeda card however, with very, very little basis. There is some distant reason to connect al Qaeda and Norway, which Rubin is more than happy to point out to us, but on the whole, the connections are tenuous and frankly, al Qaeda has more immediate concerns at the moment.

So if you’re some kind of journalist, why not mention your suspicions and hunches? Blake Hounshell and some of us following him had a brief back-and-forth over this:

Hounshell:

@blakehounshell
Blake Hounshell
Speculating != closing mind RT @DaveedGR: There are in fact multiple possibilities (anarchist groups are another). However, my gut says AQ.
20 hours ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

Me:

@papicek
papicek
@blakehounshell So you name the US’s favorite bogeyman at this point. You also wonder why people don’t trust the press?
21 hours ago via TweetDeck Favorite Reply Delete

Hounshell:

@blakehounshell
Blake Hounshell
For the record, I’m not saying we should gets the facts wrong. I just don’t see a huge problem with speculating that it’s al Qaeda.
21 hours ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

Me:

@papicek
papicek
@blakehounshell AQ? Already? Rescue is still underway and you don’t see a problem naming AQ?
21 hours ago via TweetDeck Favorite Reply Delete

Hounshell:

@blakehounshell
Blake Hounshell
@papicek I didn’t say they did it. I speculated they might have. Can you tell the difference?
21 hours ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

::
Hounshell:

@blakehounshell
Blake Hounshell
For the record, I’m not saying we should gets the facts wrong. I just don’t see a huge problem with speculating that it’s al Qaeda.
21 hours ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

Me:

@papicek
papicek
@blakehounshell You went for the hot button right off the bat. Would AQ mount such a poorly timed blast?
20 hours ago via TweetDeck Favorite Reply Delete

Hounshell:

@blakehounshell
Blake Hounshell
@matthewteller nobody’s dreaming up an AQ motive. the group has made repeated threats against Norway.
19 hours ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

Hounshell:

@blakehounshell
Blake Hounshell
Could be that too. RT @mateofeo: Why not native right wingers attacking a left wing government?
21 hours ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

I’d like to credit Hounshell with admitting the other possibilities, but the fact of the matter is it had to be dragged out of him by me and some others. I like Blake Hounshell. He’s done good work over at Foreign Policy’s Passport blog. He is qualified and well informed, but his journalistic judgement needs some work, because his speculations become other’s facts. For many, al Qaeda remains the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Hounshell’s not only a journalist, he’s the managing editor of Passport, and if he says something is a distinct possibility, then that’s enough for lots of people.

Jennifer Rubin goes much farther though:

“But as the attack in Oslo reminds us, there are plenty of al-Qaeda allies still operating.”

Really? Why? By the time this was posted, we knew the attacker was Norwegian, male, 190cm tall, blonde and wore a policeman’s shirt. Nonetheless, it reminds her of al Qaeda, and that’s a huge tell. It’s not that she’s personally obsessed with al Qaeda, because as we read on, she’s obsessed with something else:

“It would be a good opportunity, in light of this attack and talk about huge cuts in defense”

::

Some irresponsible lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — I will point the finger at Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and yet backed the Gang of Six scheme to cut $800 billion from defense — would have us believe that enormous defense cuts would not affect our national security. Obama would have us believe that al-Qaeda is almost caput and that we can wrap up things in Afghanistan. All of these are rationalizations for doing something very rash, namely curbing our ability to defend the United States and our allies in a very dangerous world.”

and Rubin is clearly using her favorite bogeyman to try to wring more dollars out of Congress for defense. Needlessly. Yes, needlessly, because the Pentagon won’t be the ones who win the GWOT (if it can be won—an enormous caveat which goes unmentioned), the role of intelligence services is paramount. Of the three US government entities, the intelligence services are most important, the State Department’s second most (securing cooperation is vital), and the military’s role a distant third. That’s the reality. Here’s another: on its own, the military will never save anyone or anything from a terrorist attack.

If I can figure this out, then Rubin and her ilk can too, but she, and they, choose not to, and there’s a reason for that. She’s running an agenda on us and trying to paint a picture in order to do so.

The Other Side of the Coin

In their defense, both Rubin and Hounshell were not reporting at the time, at least “officially” reporting, but both were quite specifically offering commentary. Yet this matters a lot less than the fact that they both enjoy the prestige and imprimatur of The Washington Post. In a world where people need to know why they send their sons and daughters off to fight, and when they do so it is a dead certainty that innocent lives will be taken by our military, a world in which ordinary “deciders” like me—voters—cannot possibly know everything we need to in order to make an informed opinion, we rely on gatekeepers of knowledge and nuance, and like it or not, both Rubin and Hounshell belong to that profession.

So, a substantial portion of Americans will come to believe that al Qaeda was behind the plot in Norway. Which, as far as we know is a lie, but a useful lie to those like Rubin, and it’ll join the Pantheon of mistaken beliefs many Americans hold:

From Baghdad Urban Legends, (October – November, 2003):

  • In a January Knight Ridder poll, half of the respondents said that one or more of the 9/11 hijackers was an Iraqi.
  • Fifty-three percent of respondents in an April CBS/New York Times poll said Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” in the 9/11 attacks.
  • In May, a poll for the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland revealed that 34 percent of those surveyed believed weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, and 22 percent said Iraq had used chemical or biological weapons in the recent war.
  • The next month, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found a similar result: Twenty-four percent said Iraq had used such weapons against American soldiers. (Six percent said the U.S. had used those weapons against the Iraqis.)

Can we hold our gatekeepers of information responsible for what idiots choose to believe? Yes and no. The ravings of lunatics are beyond anyone’s control nor should we allow our national discourse to degenerate to the point an average third grader can follow. However, we can well demand a few things: we can demand that the record be explicitly and publicly set straight, and we can demand accountability of those who will proudly boast of belonging to the fourth estate and who enjoy it’s rewards (book sales) and prestige.

We should also ask ourselves about the press’ role in society: is news a mere corporate “product” to be monetized or is it a vital part of a functioning democracy? If the latter, how should it behave? What responsibilities do its company, shareholders, editors and staff hold?

The press, like any other institution, must be held accountable, and I try to do here.

UPDATE: After being asked if he wanted to comment, Blake Hounshell tweeted me:

@blakehounshell
Blake Hounshell
@papicek you can’t tell the difference between my tweets and Rubin’s post?
4 hours ago via Twitter for Mac Favorite Retweet Reply

Fair enough. I’m not a professional, and he’s right now working hard getting the word out about Breivik’s 1500+ page manifesto (if it is, Hounshell, using admirable skepticism now, seems to be convinced that it’s authentic) sent to various news outlets shortly before his bomb went off. Hounshell has got bigger fish to fry at the moment than me. Understood.

But the issues I raise here need to be addressed. And it is by many of us who have objected to the premature al Qaeda speculation some have indulged in. A few counter terrorism people speculated that al Qaeda may have had a hand in the Oslo bombing. My contention is that restraint on the part of professional journalists and pundits—people who are paid by and whose weight increases as they enjoy the added of writing under the banner of a major news media outlet which people like me lack. Even when he’s speaking informally or indulging in speculation. Hounshell’s Twitter account has 24,780 followers as I write this. Which is up from the 24,670 he had just a few hours ago. He doesn’t get this kind of following because he’s got a huge extended family, great legs or hot music videos. He gets this readership because he’s a professional journalist whom we look to for a certain level of professional expertise and integrity. He gets paid exactly for this reason and the rest of us depend on it.

There were plenty of good reasons to discount, early on, al Qaeda’s hand in the Oslo attack, which I and others expect Hounshell should have considered. Maybe he did, but he never said.

Hounshell has as of yet not acknowledged this point.

UPDATE 2: Sleeping on things almost always yields useful thoughts, so let’s see where we are. There was plenty of mention of AQ in the twitterverse, blogosphere and in the press. Even when The Atlantic reprinted an article asking, “Why Does Al-Qaeda Have a Problem With Norway?” (and answered that there’s wasn’t any good reason that they could come up with), they were criticized for it.

Which begs the question: should we be unable to even ask the difficult or loaded question? I wouldn’t want to think so. Should we accept that such questions are going to anger some, or many, and should we accept that no matter how loaded a topic is, the need for discussion outweighs the difficulties such a discussion creates? That’s been my position for a long time. Then why do I still feel that Friday’s example was out of bounds?

Simple. There was no discussion. Nobody was saying: “Wait a minute. AQ would have to be a lot dumber than they’ve previously been to do this at this point.” (For instance.) There was lots of anger about journalists and CT specialists being premature, but those same journalists and CT specialists weren’t giving the other side of the argument. In their defense, they weren’t given much of a chance, the outcry became the jar in the wilderness.

But before uttering “al Qaeda” they should have asked themselves three things:

  1. Were there any other possibilities?
  2. What reason, if any, that AQ might not want to do this?
  3. What’s the reaction going to be?

Some did. People like Rubin simply couldn’t give a damn. Too many just went ahead thoughtlessly.

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One thought on “Notebook, 23 July 2011: Where the press goes . . . anyone know where that might be?

  1. From Why we got it wrong: coverage of the Oslo and Utoya attacks, Christine Scott Cheng, post-doc fellow in politics (Oxford). I write about post-conflict transitions, statebuilding, peacekeeping, and corruption, with a focus on Africa.

    […] (like the cover of the Sun), but that alter the course of history (See Controversial Issues).  Brett Blake (papacinek [sic]) makes a similar argument.  And as Isobel J pointed out in responding to my earlier […]

    ::

    This was an approved comment and pingback which was posted to the “About Me” page by mistake.

    Brett

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