The following information is sad, but true. It is very common for mainstream journalists, especially wire-service reporters in foreign bureaus, to have to write about events that they do not have the time or money to cover in person. The telltale sign of this syndrome can be seen in the second paragraph of the following Associated Press report from Stockholm, which in an early version ran under the oh-so-ironic headline, "Swedish artist attacked during free-speech lecture."
A Swedish artist who angered Muslims by depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a dog was assaulted Tuesday while giving a university lecture about the limits of artistic freedom.
Lars Vilks told The Associated Press a man in the front row ran up to him and head-butted him during a lecture, breaking his glasses but leaving him uninjured. It wasn't immediately clear what happened to the attacker. Vilks has faced numerous threats over his controversial drawing of Muhammad with a dog's body, but Tuesday's incident was the first time he has been physically assaulted.
In other words, the contents of this early report were drawn from interviews, most likely by telephone, with Vilks, a Uppsala University spokesperson and police (plus material from a Swedish news agency). Having done several hundred columns and stories under these kinds of circumstances, I know that it is crucial that the reporter keep pressing these sources for practical details in order to get some kind of mental picture of what happened.
In this case, we end up with this:
Vilks said a group of about 15 people had been shouting and trying to interrupt the lecture before the incident at Uppsala University. Many of them stormed the front of the room after the attack and clashed with security guards as Vilks was pulled away into a separate room, he said, describing the scene as "complete chaos." ...
University officials said there had been a peaceful demonstration by Muslims outside the university before Vilks started to speak, and that about 250 people attended his lecture. Bjork said the university had been in contact with police and security guards before Vilks' lecture to ensure his safety.
So, here are the crucial questions: Who attacked Vilks? Did he tell AP what the attackers were shouting? Did the reporter ask? The implication is that the attack was inspired by scandalous material that the cartoonist was showing to the audience. We are told that peaceful Muslims were protesting outside.
So who attacked him? Did this scene include any practical details that might offer clues?
Well, in this day and age, the odds are always good that someone will be present who is using a cellphone camera or another video device. Thus, we can consult the YouTube video that is featured at the top of this post.
It doesn't take a graduate degree in world religions to figure out that the Arabic phrase being screamed by the attackers and their supporters (a large number of the voices sound female) is "Allahu akbar (God is great)." That might be a clue as to the identity of the attackers. You think?
The Associated Press eventually caught this detail. Thus, a later version of the report was tweaked to say that a video obtained by a Swedish newspaper, "showed police using pepper spray and batons to hold off an angry crowd shouting "God is great" in Arabic after Vilks was escorted out of the lecture hall." The following information was added about the Iranian film that was Vilks was showing at the time of the attacks:
"It was about when Muslims and Muhammad are represented in homosexual situations," said Anders Montelius, a 23-year-old student who attended the lecture. "Some people started shouting, things happened really fast. About 10 to 15 seconds later it erupts. A guy from the front row gets up and sets upon Vilks. Several others followed this man. There was commotion and police pepper-sprayed a couple of people," Montelius told AP.
"When the university person responsible for the lecture announced that the lecture was discontinued, there were cheers and chants in Arabic," he said.
So here is my question: What version of this story, if any, ran in your newspaper today? Does it include the crucial "Allahu akbar" detail? Or, did your newspaper or website of choice stay with the early version and generic attackers? Did it run anything about this event?
God is, literally, in the details.