Watching the jihad watchers

Ever since Muslim extremists commandeered passenger aircraft and crashed them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon -- with another plane missing its target only because its passengers fought back -- Americans have been very interested in Muslim extremism. Each terror attack committed by Muslim extremists since then has only fueled the curiosity and thirst for knowledge more. And yet it's really hard to find in the media much helpful information connecting the dots or explaining different varieties of Islam. Yes, there have been stories here and there. But considering that we're almost 10 years out from the carnage of 9/11, I'm wondering how much longer we'll have to wait for good investigative pieces of current threats. Of course, The New York Times and Washington Post were praising radical Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki as a moderate in the first few months after 9/11. The lesson isn't that these papers were apologists for radical Islam so much as that exploring the ties and connections and people involved in terror attempts against the United States is really tough work. It's also politically incorrect and dangerous.

And the newspaper industry is collapsing upon itself. We all know reporters who have been laid off or removed from the religion beat. Editors can't devote the resources necessary to run an investigative project and journalists face more and more demands on their time.

There's one journalist who really bucks this trend: Steve Emerson. An award-winning journalist who began writing about Muslim terrorism decades before most of us even realized it was a topic worth writing about, he's been connecting dots and explaining ties between Muslim extremists here and in other countries for years.

In part because he's really the only journalist devoting himself to this work, he's got a target on his back. Though his own journalistic background includes The New Republic and PBS, some partisans have long disliked his work because of its implicit or explicit support for war in Iraq (which I and others opposed). Prior to 2001, they said his warnings about terrorism on American soil were scaremongering or Islamophobia. The critiques continue. But his Investigative Project on Terrorism remains one of the only places where you can find any information about terrorists or accused radicals.

I wish that more mainstream media would emulate and improve upon his difficult and dangerous work.

Instead they've decided to investigate -- him. Or at least one newspaper did. Let's look at the way that The Nashville Tennessean begins its piece. The one thing you won't think, after reading this lede, is that the newspaper's editors have any interest in simply sticking to the facts:

Steven Emerson has 3,390,000 reasons to fear Muslims.

That's how many dollars Emerson's for-profit company -- Washington-based SAE Productions -- collected in 2008 for researching alleged ties between American Muslims and overseas terrorism. The payment came from the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, a nonprofit charity Emerson also founded, which solicits money by telling donors they're in imminent danger from Muslims.

Emerson is a leading member of a multimillion-dollar industry of self-proclaimed experts who spread hate toward Muslims in books and movies, on websites and through speaking appearances. Leaders of the so-called "anti-jihad" movement portray themselves as patriots, defending America against radical Islam. And they've found an eager audience in ultra-conservative Christians and mosque opponents in Middle Tennessee. One national consultant testified in an ongoing lawsuit aimed at stopping a new Murfreesboro mosque.

Yeah. Kind of don't even know how to respond to a lede like that. There's so much to say about it.

For one thing, there's no substantiation (here or later in the article) for the charge that Emerson's group tells donors they're in imminent danger from Muslims, which implies ALL Muslims, a charge the group denies. And to accuse Emerson of "spreading hate" toward Muslims -- again, no attempt to deal with the complex spectrum of beliefs and practices within Islam -- is outrageous. Emerson definitely is a tough critic of Muslim extremism. And he has his critics, particularly those American groups with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

But unless you believe that all Muslims are extremists, the charge that he spreads hate of Muslims an unwise one. It is through his Investigative Project on Terrorism that I've learned, for instance, about the travails of peace-loving Muslims who fight extremism in their midst. He is often critical of some Muslims in order to defend the activities of other Muslims.

And the general language used is just over the top. It's simplistic, to say the least. A good rule of thumb -- in reporting and otherwise -- is to avoid pontificating on the motivations of other people. The phrases "fear Muslims" and "spread hate toward Muslims" may indicate something about the views of the newsroom. But particularly when attempting to accuse a respected journalist of lying and breaking tax law, the language should be more measured. In general, the entire article uses weasel words and jumps back and forth between Emerson and other anti-Muslim extremist groups without making it clear which groups are accused of what.

I don't want to quote the whole thing, but the piece accuses Emerson of wrongdoing because he runs this IPT project which gives money to SAE. Tax and non-profit law isn't exactly the most exciting stuff out there, but the reporter does his best by talking to a group that oversees charities that says this does not sound good. Here:

Because of its unusual arrangement with Emerson's company, the Investigative Project's tax returns show no details, such as salaries of staff.

[SAE spokesman Ray] Locker said the approach was vetted by the group's lawyers and is legal. He said that Emerson takes no profits from SAE Productions and therefore the Investigative Project is a nonprofit.

That doesn't fly, said Charity Navigator's Berger. Berger said tax-exempt nonprofits must be transparent and disclose how they spend money and how much they pay their staff. Emerson's group appears to be trying to skirt these rules, he said.

"It really undermines the trust in nonprofits," he said. "This is really off the grid."

The Frist Foundation's Bird said the discrepancy between the Investigative Project's application to the IRS and its practices is troubling.

"It looks like they told the government one thing and did another," he said.

Now, early on in the story, we're told that SAE says they use this arrangement for security reasons. I figured at some point we'd learn about the unbelievable security concerns the researchers for this project deal with on a day-to-day basis.

The fact is that this was the angle I was most interested in, as someone who has done investigative reporting. I've spoken with journalists who have been to their top secret bunker and have been told all sorts of stories about how hard they work to keep their location a secret. Like, you're literally blindfolded on your way there. Why? No one ever needed to spell it out for me, but I figured it was because they were afraid of being targeted by Muslim extremists.

And so I assumed, when I first read this story, that the reason why they use this financial arrangement had something to do with these very serious security concerns. The word "security" is mentioned once, early on, as a reason, but it's not gone into.

In a response from the IPT, the group says that The Tennessean did a very bad job reporting on the matter. And yes, it's all about security. They say The Tennessean misunderstood the IRS form, which they explain. They quote a man who spent 20 years with the IRS who advised them as part of a team of accountants and lawyers. They say that the reporter ignored what they told him about the structuring of the relationship between the foundation and SAE which was "done to provide a layer of security for our employees. Emerson has been the subject of death threats because of his work, and our organization as a whole has also been threatened. All of this was approved by our outside legal and accounting experts."

Now, maybe there is something to report in these financial arrangements. Like the nerd who studied economics I am, I've had fun digging through financial records for investigative stories. I can totally see where this financial arrangement would have seemed like a dramatic "gotcha" against IPT. Had I not known how much the group and its staff had been threatened and had to work to keep their cover protected, maybe it would have seemed like the perfect way to frame the story. Unfortunately, that seems like it was a mistake in this case. To drift past the very real security concerns and to fail to find anyone to defend the accounting and legal structure when such people are more than plentiful and to also accuse the group of having spread hatred without evidence makes for some serious problems.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter once gave me some very helpful tips on how to have the best story possible. One of the things she advocated was collecting all of your "gotcha" research and then presenting it to the target of your investigation and asking them to respond within a week or so. I remarked that this seemed very charitable to the target of the investigation and she replied that she didn't do it for them so much as for her own sake. Sometimes when she would get a tip on a story she would get carried away and convinced of a company's guilt. She needed to make sure she didn't miss anything obvious that would blow her entire story.

A quick note about what I mentioned before, the drifting back and forth between the work of IPT and other groups that fight Muslim extremists. Instead of speaking with an accountant or lawyer or security expert about why the foundation structures itself the way it does, the reporter instead writes:

But Rebecca Bynum, editor of the New English Review, a Nashville-based online magazine that's critical of Islam, said she has no problem with Emerson's big take. Her nonprofit took in $30,000 in 2008 and has no paid employees.

"I know that (Emerson) does great work," Bynum said. "They investigate very thoroughly. You can always count on what they say."

The message anti-Islam authors and groups disseminate isn't always accurate.

The article then goes on to present a one-sided argument where a history professor disagrees with things that some other people have written about Shariah. They are not given a chance to defend their work. But that's not the point. Note the transition between the last two lines and that the Shariah disagreement has absolutely nothing to do with anything put out by IPT.

Perhaps the trouble is that The Tennessean has two stories here. On the one hand they have a story about disagreements over what is and what is not Shariah and how much Muslim extremism should concern Americans. On the other hand, they have a story about IPT and its tax structure. These stories could probably work much better separately.

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