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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Why People Distrust the Media

This is the current headline and story summary for the lead article on CNN.com:

'Real deal' tunnel plot foiled, CNN.com, updated 4:38 a.m. EDT, 7/8/06: U.S. and international authorities say they disrupted a plot by eight terrorists to blow up a commuter train tunnel connecting New Jersey and Manhattan, the FBI announced Friday. FBI Assistant Director Mershon said the target was one of the PATH rail tubes running under the Hudson River. He added the plan was "what we believe was the real deal," a scheme involving al Qaeda on three continents.

The CBS News blog, Public Eye, has some questions about the hype behind the latest roundup of suspected terrorists. This was posted at 3:04 p.m. on 7/7/06, which is before the time the CNN story was posted (9:58 p.m), and long before the time the headline summary above and accompanying story were still featured on the CNN web site:

The Plot Against America, by Brian Montopoli, Public Eye: "TUNNEL BOMB PLOT" trumpeted the New York Daily News this morning on its cover, the words printed in big bold white letters against a black background. Jihadists, said the paper, had a "serious" plot to flood lower Manhattan by bombing the Holland Tunnel, "to drown the Financial District as New Orleans was by Hurricane Katrina."

Frightening? Sure. "Serious?" Well, the jury is still out. The "largely aspirational" plot never went beyond e-mails, there was no credible link to Al Qaeda, and there was no specific mention of the Holland Tunnel, just the mass transit system more generally; additionally, sources say "no one in the United States ever took part in the Internet conversations and…no one ever purchased any explosives or scouted the transit system."

The plot as the Daily News conceived it seemed absurd enough that one would have thought it would have given editors pause – how does one flood lower Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel, seeing as the island is above the level of the river? But that didn't stop the paper from rushing its inaccurate story into print and trumpeting it with BIG BOLD LETTERS, and it didn't stop other news organizations from turning the alleged plot into a huge story. That's no surprise, of course. When people speak of bias in the press, they tend to talk abut political bias, but the more serious bias is towards sensationalism, which tends to sell better. (It's safe to say the Daily News moved a few more copies this morning than usual.)

The press isn't the only party with an incentive to play up these kinds of stories. Look at the last major terror bust, of a Miami-based group allegedly plotting to take out the Sears Tower in Chicago. The government trumpeted the arrest as evidence of its success in fighting terrorism, and there's no doubt the bust was a good thing. But Andrew Cohen read the indictment, and wrote that "nothing in [it] convinces me that these guys were legitimate terrorist wannabes as opposed to a bunch of angry bozos looking lazily for al Qaeda to hook them up with all sorts of goodies." Cohen cites a series of government charges that turned out to be less than they first appeared -- John Lindh, Zacarias Moussaoui, Yaser Esam Hamdi, Jose Padilla – to explain his cynicism.

The truth is that it's difficult to tell how serious the Miami plot was, just as it's difficult to judge the seriousness of this most recent case. But because the parties involved – the media and the government – often have an incentive to assume (and trumpet) the worst, news consumers should be particularly careful to look beyond the headlines and the crawl when it comes to these kinds of stories. The media is almost never at its best when reporting on terror plots, and today brought us one more example of how restrained, accurate reporting can go out the window when journalists are given the choice between healthy skepticism and reckless sensationalism.

Here's CNN's story for comparison. As it says above, "the jury is still out," but the jury would have a hard time finding anything to deliberate in this story:

FBI: Three held in New York tunnel plot, Kelli Arena contributed, CNN.com: U.S. and international authorities disrupted a plot by eight terrorists to blow up a commuter train tunnel connecting New Jersey and Manhattan, the FBI announced Friday. ... FBI Assistant Director Mark Mershon told reporters... the plan was "what we believe was the real deal," a scheme involving al Qaeda members on three continents.

Mershon said none of the suspects has been to the United States. ... "They were about to go to a phase where they would attempt to surveil targets, establish a regimen of attack and acquire the resources necessary to effectuate the attacks," Mershon said...

Although Mershon would not divulge extensive details of the plot, law enforcement sources said the suspects wanted to cross the Canadian border into the United States.

Once in New York City, they would board trains with backpacks full of explosives, which they planned to detonate when the trains passed through a tunnel under the Hudson River. The suspects discussed how much explosive material would be needed to breach the thick bedrock lining of the tunnels, the sources said.

Assem Hammoud is the only suspect who has been formally charged; he is in custody in Lebanon. Hammoud, who claims to be an al Qaeda member, has admitted to being the group's ringleader and has professed his loyalty to the terror network's leader, Osama bin Laden, Mershon said. Hammoud, who also goes by the name Amir Andalousli, is a professor of computer studies at a private university in ... Beirut...

The FBI began investigating Hammoud and his alleged cohort about a year ago, when talk of a tunnel attack popped up in Internet chat rooms and in e-mail discussions... The FBI helped track the chatter to Hammoud, who admitted to sending detailed maps of the targeted Port Authority Trans-Hudson, or PATH, tunnel and plans for the attack to his co-conspirators, he said. ...

Although the plot was in its preliminary stages, Mershon said the attack was slated to take place in October or November. Investigators moved in because they believed the suspects were about to begin assessing the target and obtaining explosives and other materials for the attack, he said. Mershon would not name the specific tunnel but said it was one of the PATH tubes running under the Hudson River. ...

The New York Daily News broke the story Friday morning, and Mershon expressed disappointment at what he called the "unprofessional behavior" of whomever leaked it to the paper.

The leaker was "clearly someone who doesn't understand the fragility of international relations," he said, adding that there have been a "number of uncomfortable questions" from the foreign intelligence services that participated in the investigation. ...

Whatever respect I had for CNN's journalistic abilities and as a news organization has diminished considerably in recent years. Update: More here (AlterNet) and here (CBS).

    Posted by on Saturday, July 8, 2006 at 02:34 AM in Politics, Press, Terrorism | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (8)

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