The battle over a quote in The New York Times: Did Charlie Hebdo gunmen urge conversion to Islam?

Sorry, but it is time to make a familiar point all over again.

The other day, I noted that -- if you want insights into the mindsets of editors wrestling with the tricky, hot-button religion angles in the Charlie Hebdo massacre -- it is very important to study the early versions of stories in an elite publication (think The New York Times, in this case) and then contrast them with the versions that ran later.

This is hard to do because of the evolving WWW-era practice of actually removing earlier versions of the story from the online record. This raises all kinds of questions (including for media critics), such as: Did the earlier versions count? Is it accurate to say that a publication like the Times published something if the material no longer "exists" on the record? If a digital tree is removed from a digital forest, how do you discuss whether or not it existed in the first place?

Screen shots help, but it's impossible to screen shot everything. I suspect that stories are now changing so fast that those online time-machine search programs cannot catch everything. There are, of course, critics out there making their own copies of the earlier stories. Thus, via Mediaite.com, we have this gripping passage from an early Times report, quoting survivors of the massacre:

Sigolène Vinson, a freelancer who had decided to come in that morning to take part in the meeting, thought she would be killed when one of the men approached her.
Instead, she told French news media, the man said, “I’m not going to kill you because you’re a woman, we don’t kill women, but you must convert to Islam, read the Quran and cover yourself,” she recalled.

Is that what the attacker said? Is that, in fact, what Vinson told Radio France Internationale, in that second-hand quote from one of the gunmen?

The problem, of course, is that the Times story then evolved. The next time around, according to a report in The Daily Caller, this is how the Times described that face-to-face exchange. Be careful out there, folks.

Sigolène Vinson, a freelance journalist who had come in that morning to take part in the meeting, said that when the shooting started, she thought she would be killed.
Ms. Vinson said in an interview that she dropped to the floor and crawled down the hall to hide behind a partition, but one of the gunmen spotted her and grabbed her by the arm, pointing his gun at her head. Instead of pulling the trigger, though, he told her she would not be killed because she was a woman.
“Don’t be afraid, calm down, I won’t kill you,” the gunman told her in a steady voice, with a calm look in his eyes, she recalled. “You are a woman. But think about what you’re doing. It’s not right.”

What changed? To be blunt, the "why" in the "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" equation vanished. What vanished was the claim that the gunman linked a faith demand with what appears to be some kind of act of mercy. In other words, the gunman's rationale -- based on his understanding of Islam -- vanished. Why?

Later, the plot grew more complex. In the version of the story currently linked to that evolving Times URL, readers will find the follow:

Sigolène Vinson, a freelance journalist who had come in that morning to take part in the meeting, said that when the shooting started, she thought she would be killed. Ms. Vinson said in an interview that she dropped to the floor and crawled down the hall to hide behind a partition, but one of the gunmen spotted her and grabbed her by the arm, pointing his gun at her head. Instead of pulling the trigger, though, he told her she would not be killed because she was a woman.
She disputed a quotation attributed to her and carried on the website of the French radio service RFI stating that the gunman had told her she should convert to Islam, read the Quran and cover herself. Instead, she told The New York Times in an interview, the gunman told her: “Don’t be afraid, calm down, I won’t kill you.” He spoke in a steady voice, she said, with a calm look in his eyes, saying: “ ‘You are a woman. But think about what you’re doing. It’s not right.’ ” Then she said he turned to his partner, who was still shooting, and shouted: “We don’t shoot women! We don’t shoot women! We don’t shoot women!”

OK, let's give credit to the Times team for asking the source to verify what she said or did not say. It was clearly very important, with the chaos continuing in Paris, for the Times editors to be able to justify that removal of a controversial reference to the gunmen even claiming that their actions were, in some way, linked to their faith.

But what did Vinson actually say to RFI? The Daily Caller notes that RFI appears to be sticking to its story, in a recent report (run, roughly, through an online translator). The key line now states (and I appeal to French-speakers to offer alternative versions):

"We do not kill women, but you have to convert you to Islam and conceal you."

So what is going on here? What is the religion-motive battle all about?

As we have seen in other parts of the world -- think many recent events in Nigeria -- it is common for radical Jihadists to urge people to convert to Islam as a way of escaping death. Is that a "Muslim" thing to do? Clearly, they believe that it is.

But is that the true Islamic stance? In a faith in which there is no official Catechism, no official universal authority structure, who gets to say what is and what is not an official, orthodox take on this massive and complex world religion?

The bottom line: Do editors at the Times get to make those calls, through what they report or choose not to report? (Let me stress again that I have no problem with Times journalists seeking out Vinson to ask her to clarify this particular controversial quote. That was careful journalism; the kind of follow-up that massive news organizations have the resources to pull off).

But your GetReligionistas keep noting (Bobby this morning, for example), there is no one Islam and it is simplistic not to led readers know that radical Muslims are offering religious explanations for their answers. Journalists must cover this debate, this clash of worldviews, inside Islam. As I have stated before:

(T)he mainstream press has been torn between two "big ideas" when it comes to Islam. The first is this: "Islam is a religion of peace." The second is: "There is no one Islam." The problem, of course, is that these two messages clash. Clearly, many Muslims do want to reach some form of peace with core values in the modern world (think article 18 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.) However, there is no one Islam. Many Muslims do not want, for example, to allow people to convert to other faiths. Many do not want free speech, if that means blasphemy.

Many, not all. Many, including some with guns in Paris. Does avoiding the Godtalk in these events truly help readers understand what is happening in France (and elsewhere) right now, even as I type? Why seize a kosher supermarket?

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