by: Jay Sterling Silver on September 20th, 2012 | 9 Comments »
Admittedly, I’m a bit touchy about false reports that Jews are involved in sinister activities, like the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press reports that a Jewish real-estate developer in California, having raised five million dollars from “more than 100 Jewish donors,” created the anti-Islam video that touched off riots throughout the Arab world and became the pretense for killing American diplomats in Libya. A cursory knowledge of history, conspiracy theories, and stereotyping — from international banking conspiracies to the Holocaust and its denial to present-day hate groups — can make you feel that way. But normally responsible sources like the Journal and the AP needn’t play into the hands of reactionaries, as they did in the initial reports that Jews were at the bottom of the worldwide furor.
The error was not insignificant. In a day when hateful misinformation can produce instantaneous tragedy in any corner of an overwrought world, as it so clearly has in this case, laying responsibility at the feet of an “Israeli Jew” and his affluent Jewish friends can incite more violence against Jews and anyone else in the path of those moved to murder, in the name of God, over a perceived religious affront.
The error was entirely preventable, as well. As a cursory attempt to check the facts would have revealed, no Sam Bacile — the alleged creator of the video screed — ever walked the earth. It’s equally clear from viewing the 14-minute, YouTube post that it didn’t cost five million dollars, or even five thousand, to produce. And would it stand to reason that the imaginary Bacile, as an Israeli, would attempt to “help his native land” by provoking its neighbors with a vile depiction of Muhammad? Or that the individual at the other end of the phone — who’d be blamed for the deaths of innocent Americans and the spread of rioting across a continent, and who’d become the target of extremists himself — would provide his real name?
Yet another irony of the story is that bigoted zealots of the type actually responsible for the anti-Muslim film — its consultant founded a group that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, is “a combustible mix of guns, extreme antigovernment politics, and religious extremism” — are so often anti-Semites themselves. Indeed, the Jews were blamed by the film’s creator who knew full well the condemnation and peril they’d face as a result.
In allowing themselves to be duped by a convicted con artist with a grudge against the Muslim world, the Journal and the AP have, through their own carelessness, played into stereotypes of wealthy Jews conspiring to subvert the institutions of the world — in this case the religion of Islam — in their age-old pursuit of global hegemony. And the spread of the violence and unrest throughout the Middle East in response to a bizarrely ham-handed video clip is more proof than anyone needs of the destructive potential of such stereotypes in today’s interconnected world.
Adding insult to injury, both organizations were slow to concede error and correct their mistakes. As Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi noted, “The apparent mis-reporting of Bacile’s identity triggered a series of ‘updates’ from media sources, but no direct admissions that earlier reports were incorrect.” The Journal subsequently reported that Bacile had gone “into hiding” and that no record of him could be found, prompting Farhi to ask the obvious question of “how a man who apparently does not exist can go ‘into hiding.’”
The WSJ also noted that “on Tuesday, the Journal spoke to a man who claimed to be the director and called himself Sam Bacile,” but failed to point out that, in addition to listening to the man’s assertions, it reported them as fact. The article mentioned that “Sam Bacile is not an Israeli-American, and his attempt to pass himself off as one is a potentially deadly slander,” but neglected to mention the Journal’s role in sloppily disseminating potential defamation.
In response to an inquiry from PBS’s “MediaShift” about the misreporting, the author of the original Wall Street Journal article explained, “The whole thing blindsided everyone.” Not everyone, actually, just the journalists who in their haste to scoop the competition didn’t bother to check the facts. The author of the Journal article attempted to sidestep any personal responsibility for the errors by explaining,” I’m a columnist, not a reporter.”
The reluctance of the Journal and the AP to fess up to the mistake may make little difference, though. As Jeffrey Goldberg of The Altantic points out, following the initial dissemination of the information to the far reaches of the globe, “It is not possible to withdraw such a story.”
The Journal and the AP aren’t the only media sources that could’ve easily uncovered the truth before they passed along combustible falsehoods; the misinformation was parroted by many other major news outlets. Market forces in the super-competitive, 24/7 cable and Internet news industry mustn’t obscure the need to check facts, however; and verifying the truth of an assertion before it is printed or broadcast, and owning up to inaccuracies when they are, are hardly limitations on free speech.
In his response to MediaShift’s inquiry, the author of the Journal article seemed to agree: “I guess there are some big questions about living in a world where we have to get our stories out so quickly that we neglect the possible fatal consequences of an error. But on the other hand, there’s a judgment call to be made about the proper balance between perfect accuracy and speed.” Unfortunately, the reporter — oops, “columnist” — and the Journal made the wrong call on this one.
As the editors of our esteemed news organizations well know, the job of journalists is to report the news, not to become it by fanning the flames.
Jay Sterling Silver is a law professor at St. Thomas University School of Law in South Florida. Many of his other pieces can be found in the National Law Journal and the Huffington Post.