Apr 26 1995

Knee-jerk Coverage Of Bombing Should Not Be Forgotten

So much has happened since the horrendous bombing in Oklahoma that the initial media coverage may already seem like a distant memory. But one person who will never forget is Saher Al-Saidi, a refugee from Iraq now living in Oklahoma City.

The morning after the explosion — following nearly 24 hours of knee-jerk news coverage that linked the terrorism to Muslims and Arabs — vigilantes shattered the windows of her home with stones. Not quite seven months pregnant, she began experiencing abdominal pain and internal bleeding; her baby was stillborn.

Across the country, many other Muslims and Arab-Americans were harassed and threatened.

Hours after the bomb went off, CBS Evening News featured Steven Emerson, a ubiquitous "terrorism expert," who eagerly presented his biases as objective analysis: "This was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Middle Eastern trait."

In the wake of the bombing, media outlets rounded up the stock "terrorism experts" and paraded them across TV screens and front pages. For nearly two days, we heard from touted experts whose utter lack of evidence was masked by bold assertions about a foreign menace threatening America’s heartland.

On the CNBC cable-TV network, Cal Thomas’s show featured an expert warning of illegal immigrants "coming in to destroy our democracy."

Columnist Georgie Ann Geyer asserted that the bombing "has every single earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East." Geyer relied on Emerson’s claim that the Oklahoma City area is "one of the centers for Islamic radicalism outside the Middle East."

The New York Times speculated in its first day of reporting on why terrorists would have struck in Oklahoma City: "Some Middle Eastern groups have held meetings there, and the city is home to at least three mosques."

Is the presence of houses of worship now grounds for suspecting a terrorist threat?

What is haunting about the performance of these mainstream, "quality" news outlets is that they exhibited the paranoia and xenophobia — albeit in milder doses — that one hears from right-wing militia groups: fear of foreigners and a belief in dark conspiracies beyond our nation’s control.

Most mainstream journalists were caught flat-footed by the militia story. Perhaps that’s why they believe — mistakenly, in our view — that federal agencies need new powers of infiltration in order to monitor and prosecute criminal elements among the extremists.

For two years, "patriot" militias have grown steadily — as have efforts by neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join and take over the militias. But heightened police powers aren’t needed to track these trends.

Human-rights groups and independent journalists have been monitoring these militias from the beginning. It can be as easy as cruising the Internet. Or monitoring short-wave radio. Or turning on AM talk radio.

Two months ago, we wrote a column exposing the supportive role played by certain talk-radio hosts for the militia movement.

We published the remarks of Colorado Springs talk host Chuck Baker, whose program last summer provided a friendly forum for extremist militia strategies, including calls for an armed march on Washington to remove "traitors" from Congress. (Baker sits on the advisory board of the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts.)

We also reported on G. Gordon Liddy’s instructions to militia groups — offered last August on his nationally syndicated radio talk show — about how to kill agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms: "They’ve got a big target on there, ATF. Don’t shoot at that because they’ve got a vest on underneath. Head shots. Head shots."

Since the Oklahoma bombing, Liddy has amended his instructions — "shoot to the groin area" — while telling listeners how to build a home-made bomb.

Broadcasting from WABC in New York, hate-radio pioneer Bob Grant has been a magnet for callers from neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, who use Grant’s show to publicize their propaganda and phone numbers.

The day after the Oklahoma bombing, Grant was in usual form: declaring that Islam is a "violent" religion, that Muslims were behind the detonation — and expressing his desire to shoot a caller who warned of rushing to judgment.

Instead of engaging in dangerous speculation, the media’s "terrorism experts" might do better to monitor extremists … by flipping on the AM radio dial.

And besides scrutinizing states that sponsor international terrorism, they might examine media companies that promote domestic extremism. They could begin with ABC/Capital Cities — whose stations air such programs — and Westwood One, which syndicates both Bob Grant and Gordon Liddy.

Cohen and Solomon’s second collection of columns is, Through the Looking Glass, from Common Courage Press. FAIR’s book from New Press, The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error is now out and is $7.95.