May 1 2003

The Victories That Weren’t

In the "war on terror," media slight facts for spin

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that bureaucrats and politicians exaggerate their accomplishments; news media exist, in part, to check government claims against reality. But when reporters don’t bother to look for answers beyond the press conference, they can turn an official fiction into a documented “fact.”

Perhaps the most significant embellishment repeated over the past couple of years is that the U.S. government is keeping Americans safe from terrorist attack, as demonstrated by the occasional arrest of suspects in the U.S. and abroad. Each well-publicized sting is accompanied by more declarations of victory from politicos and pundits–declarations that tend to crumble when subjected to examination.

Given the obsessive secrecy that’s characteristic of both terrorist organizations and the Bush administration, reporters can’t always tell all sides of a story even if they want to. Sometimes, though, information that challenges the official line is already public knowledge. The most useful stories on America’s “war on terrorism” have gone beyond the claims of victory and uncovered the details of investigations and arrests–but they were stories that got buried under a blanket of government and media snow.

Inflated statistics

In December 2001, the Philadelphia Inquirer discovered that the Department of Justice had been inflating its success in detecting and prosecuting terrorists. Two of the paper’s reporters (12/16/01) found that

cases labeled as terrorism involve erratic behavior by people with mental illnesses, passengers getting drunk on airplanes and convicts rioting to get better prison food. There were the Mexicans who concocted a phony passport application, the former court employee who shoved and threatened a judge, the babbling man who walked into an FBI office and threatened to kill former President Bill Clinton–though he didn’t realize Clinton was no longer president.

Unlike the live press briefings ubiquitous on cable news, the Inquirer story was a product of actual reporting. “We wanted to do the story as soon as we found out the figures were available,” said Mark Fazlollah, who wrote the story with Peter Nicholas. “It’s a good lesson of what can be done in journalism.”

Fazlollah says he was happy with the exposure the story got; many papers in the Knight-Ridder chain (which owns the Inquirer) picked it up. But if you got your news from television, or the majority of papers that didn’t print the article, you would have had little reason to question the inflated government statistics. “It’s a difficult thing for television to explain,” Fazlollah said, “because there’s no talking heads.”

Still, the story led the General Accounting Office, Congress’s investigative arm, to conduct its own inquiry. Their report (numbered GAO-03-266, for the curious) came out in January 2003; it supported the Inquirer’s findings, and recommended new procedures for the Justice Department.

But as late as April 2003, major outlets were still reporting the official claims of terror arrests without putting them in context, or mentioning the GAO findings. A recent item in the New York Times (4/2/03) ran: “Attorney General John Ashcroft, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, said yesterday that the battle against terrorism on the home front was on track and going well. Since September 11, 2001, he said, ‘over 100 terror plots have been disrupted.'”

It’s a comforting thought. Unfortunately, just because Ashcroft said it doesn’t make it so.

Spin now, facts later

In the rush to get a scoop, journalists can skim over the fine print. Such was the case with recent coverage of Operation Green Quest, a federal task force designed to disrupt terrorist finances. Last March, when Green Quest raided several Muslim-owned businesses around the country, it issued a press release that read: “By dismantling these illegal networks, we are denying avenues for terrorist groups to raise and move funds in this country.”

Many news outlets noted (well below their screaming headlines) that the people arrested had not been charged with any terrorism-related crime. But since most journalists evidently worked from the same press release, they lazily characterized the arrests as “anti-terror” operations. Fox News labeled its reports “Nine Arrested in Terror-Financing Raids,” (3/21/03) and “Terror Finance Schemes Busted” (3/24/03). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (3/22/03) ran a story headlined “Nine Arrested at Businesses Accused of Aiding Terrorists.” And the conservative Weekly Standard (4/8/03) made more out of the news than John Ashcroft’s speechwriters would dare to, calling the arrests a “serious injury on the Wahhabi lobby, the Saudi-backed extremist network that largely controls Islam in America.”

It was left to a small alternative paper–the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages (4/9/03)–to tell the story behind the story. Reporter Peter Ritter wrote, “In Minnesota, where four of the arrests were made, local officials complain that Operation Green Quest’s crackdown amounts to little more than a bureaucratic fiat.” Ritter interviewed U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger, who rejected the implication that it was a terrorism case: “I’m not prepared to make the assumption that because the money is going to the Middle East, it’s going to fund terrorism. I’m not going to stand by and let a press release from Washington misconstrue what these two men are charged with.”

A Green Quest spokesperson, Dean Boyd, blamed the media for trumping up the March arrests. He told the City Pages: “If you look closely, it says that there’s no evidence that any of these individuals was engaged in terrorism. It just says that these are the types of financial schemes that have the potential to be exploited by terrorists.”

Clearly, identifying the arrestees as terrorist supporters was a mistake the government was hoping reporters would make. But however disingenuous, the man does have a point. The rules of journalism demand attention to detail and require independent confirmation of stories. But many news outlets raise the terror alarms based on nothing more than quotes from anonymous officials or a single government announcement. January brought fear-inducing headlines (“Five Illegals May Have Terror Ties”–Boston Herald, 12/31/02) after the FBI called a nationwide all-points-bulletin for five Arab men infiltrating the U.S. from Canada. It turned out that the men didn’t exist (New York Times, 1/7/03).

Unfortunately, media hype of unconfirmed terror warnings has been the rule, not the exception. Coverage of the war on terrorism leans toward frenzy, with more attention paid to the color-coded alert level than to what the Bush administration is actually doing.

Stories of duct tape, smallpox and firebombs understandably make people fearful–sometimes without good reason. And stories of government successes against such menaces may make people more likely to accept racial and political profiling, searches without cause, and extreme legislation like the Patriot Act II (FAIR Media Advisory, 2/12/03), following the dubious idea that Americans must abandon their liberties in order to preserve their security–and their freedom.