J-politics and Islamist terrorism reporting

It's been a while since I've contributed regularly around here, and I've changed jobs in the last few months so it's probably best I give a quick update. I'm the online editor at The Weekly Standard where I write online and on dead tree pulp about everything from unions to mercenaries to graveyards. So that's where I'm coming from, these days. In any event, I want to talk about a story that's over a year old and how the story and reaction to it tell us something about the way the media frames issues surrounding Islamism.

Let me explain. Last January, Harper's ran an expose "The Guantánamo 'Suicides': A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle," by Scott Horton. Judging from the scare quotes, you can probably gather that the story was insinuating that something much more sinister was going on. The article marshals a great many details to insinuate that three Muslim Gitmo detainees were murdered at a secret CIA facility near the famous Cuban terrorism detainee camp.

Given the serious nature of the accusations, many of you are undoubtedly wondering why you haven't heard much about this story before. In fact, Jack Shafer, Slate's inestimable media critic, noted at the time "the major press has largely snubbed the Harper's scoop."

Well, Shafer closely examined the story and concluded that there were many, many good reasons why Harper's expose hadn't garnered any media attention. Shafer's takedown of the piece is thorough and convincing, so read the whole thing. But suffice to say, it's got more holes than golf course made of Swiss cheese:

Although Horton has no proof that the building nestled into the Guantánamo hills houses a CIA operation, he proceeds on the basis of a rumor and a cute nickname to write as if the place is a CIA installation called Camp No. The nine additional references the piece makes to Camp No (not counting its placement on a map) are designed to lull gullible readers into thinking that 1) Camp No exists and 2) that one of its uses is to torture prisoners. Camp No has already become "real" enough to deserve a Wikipedia entry.

For the sake of argument, let's say that the CIA or some other agency did run a secret site at Guantánamo known colloquially to some as Camp No, and that three prisoners were killed there on June 9, 2006, as Horton surmises. But if you were going to torture prisoners to the point of death in interrogations, would you really draw three prisoners from the same cell block, inside the same hour, for that punishment? It would make more sense to torture one to death, cover up that murder, and after a decent interval proceed with the gained information to torture the second prisoner to death. Or, if your aim was to execute them and cover up the murders, why bring the bodies back to a medical clinic where scores of people would examine them and an investigation would be started. Killing three prisoners on one night and then attempting to cover it up is a mission that not even the combined powers of Jack Bauer, James Bond, and Jack Ryan could pull off.

Note that Joe Carter at First Things also took the piece to the woodshed. The fact that the story was a lot of thinly sourced and dubious conjecture likely explains why no one really picked up on the story.

Well, until now. Incredibly, the "Guantanamo 'Suicides'" piece just won a National Magazine Award for "Best Reporting." A number of critics are baffled by the honor. I'll just come out and say what I think -- it's one thing that Harper's has tilted left of left in recent years, but it says quite a lot that the worst examples of the magazine's excessive politicization is chosen for such a high honor ("Guantanamo Suicides" edged out another egregiously politicized piece for the award -- Jane Mayer's now-infamous profile of the Koch Brothers.) Conversely, there are lots of talented journalists that will never win a National Magazine Award, no matter how incredibly deserving they are, simply because they work at publications with a right-of-center editorial slant.

There are many good damning and critical stories to be written about injustices to Muslims as a result of the war on terror.  There's no need to resort to bad journalism. It's reaching a point where the pervasive politicization of stories about Muslims is probably doing more harm than good. Last weekend, the Washington Post ran pieces on "four lives shattered and transformed by Osama bin Laden" and two were by Muslims. One was by former Guantanamo detainee Mozzam Begg:

In January 2002, I was taken into custody in Islamabad in front of my wife and children by CIA and Pakistani intelligence agents. I was soon handed over to the U.S. military in Kandahar, where, after being punched, kicked, spat upon, stripped naked and shackled by U.S. troops, I was taken to my first interrogation.

While I was shivering from cold and fear, a man in an FBI baseball cap asked me, “When was the last time you saw Osama bin Laden?”

I replied that I’d never seen him — except on television.

Sounds harrowing. The problem is that the evidence is pretty darn clear that Begg is an Al Qaeda supporter and a jihadist, despite the fact that Post lets him go ahead and write a credulous whitewash job. The other Post piece was about a Muslim-American mistakenly put on the no-fly list. Personally, I think TSA is just about the worst example of ineffective bureaucracy in human history and I'm sure Muslim-Americans are suffering is a result. But it's not like the media hasn't covered this story before.

What I want to know is why is the media willfully ignoring an obvious narrative? When the media thinks about "lives shattered and transformed by Osama bin Laden" why do they think, "Hey, let's get the guy who makes video games about shooting American soldiers and posts Anwar al Awlaki's propaganda on his website to write something!"

Feel free to dispute this in the comments, but my sense is that when covering Islamic terror the media's bias makes them gravitate toward stories that also indict the U.S. and Western governments to some degree. For instance, how hard would it have been for the Post to find an Afghan, Iraqi, Moroccan, Pakistani, Somali, Briton, or Spaniard, who was maimed in an Al-Qaeda attack? Or who lost family to al-Qaeda? There are probably a lot of tragic and illuminating stories to be told here. If done right, they might even be worthy of an award.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

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