Slanted Journalism

President Obama insistently believes that the danger posed by jihadism is actually the product of some isolated, misguided “extremists,” who simply use Islam to rationalize their actions. He is unwilling to identify their savage crimes as acts of Islamic terrorism.

The major news media also regularly downplay the threat, by slanting the presentation of facts. The latest example of such slanted journalism is in yesterday’s (Jan. 15, 2015) New York Times. A front-page story discusses the role played by Al Qaeda in last week’s Paris massacres, perpetrated by two brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi. Here are the facts about that role, as cited in this article:

1) Investigators have established that in 2011 one of the brothers went to Yemen, “where he received training and $20,000 from Al Qaeda’s affiliate there.”

2) “In a video and written statement, the Qaeda branch in Yemen on Wednesday formally claimed responsibility for the deadly assault.” The statement was quoted as saying that “the one who chose the target, laid the plan and financed the operation is the leadership of the organization.”

3) “Cherif Kouachi told a French television station [that his trip to Yemen] . . .  was financed by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who oversaw attacks against the West by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP.”

4) “In repeated statements before they were killed by the police, the Kouachi brothers said they had carried out the attack on behalf of the Qaeda branch in Yemen.”

5)   A counter-terrorism researcher in Washington is quoted as saying: “I suspect that Cherif Kouachi did engage AQAP members in Yemen, but that he was not fully brought into the organization. . . . AQAP may have offered minimal training, directed the [Kouachi] group toward publicly announced target lists and sent him on his way.”

6) “The attacks appear to illustrate what analysts have described as an evolution in Qaeda tactics and logistics. Because of heightened surveillance, operatives are trained and assigned general targets, but details on how to carry out the operation are no longer micromanaged by the organization.”

What would you conclude from this? Plainly, we have evidence, from the Kouachi bothers and from Al Qaeda, that the killers were trained and financed by Al Qaeda. It would seem self-evident that this is the significant aspect of the story. But no. Sprinkled throughout the piece are the following skeptical interjections (all italics are added by me):

1) The Qaeda statement “said the target had been chosen by the Qaeda leadership but did not specify which leaders.”

2) “But it is still unclear what specific guidance the Qaeda branch gave to the Kouachis about carrying out an attack.

3)  The counter-terrorism researcher, after suggesting that “AQAP may have offered minimal training . . . and sent him on his way,” said that if so, “AQAP did not exactly direct the attack.”

4) And then we have the story’s final paragraph, a quote from a Brookings Institution scholar:  “But the big question that investigators need to look at is: How much of a role did AQAP play in the actual planning in the final stages of this process? . . .  They could have given these guys money and training three or four years ago, but when they executed it, it could have been done with money [from other sources].”

This is the technique of distortion by non-essentialization. It is perfectly appropriate for a journalist to present facts that raise doubts about some assertion. It is not appropriate to raise doubts by means of irrelevant facts.

In a story about the Paris bloodbath, when the world faces the growing danger of Islamic jihadism, the fact that the brothers received training and direction from Al Qaeda is important; the fact that they were “not fully brought into the organization” is not. Evidence that Al Qaeda was behind the event is important; the absence of evidence about a (potentially infinite) number of details, is not. The lack of knowledge about the exact instructions given to the Kouachis is insignificant—and stressing it serves only to make the point misleading. This disingenuous technique can be easily discerned if we look at these two imaginary sentences:

A. “We know that Al Qaeda trained and financed the killers, even though we don’t know their precise instructions.”

B. “We remain ignorant about the nature of Al Qaeda’s role in the carnage, even though there are some things about it we do know.”

Out of context, both sentences appear to be true. Within the relevant context, however, the second sentence is patently deceptive.

Now, the story is bad enough, but the headline—which is contradicted by the contents of the story itself—is even worse: “Disputed Claims Over Qaeda Role” (and the subhead goes even further by adding: “Unclear if Group Planned or Aided Paris Attack”). This conveys the message that we don’t really know whether Al Qaeda was involved. It conveys the message that regardless of the facts that a careful reading of the story would identify, no conclusions should be reached about an organized network of Islamists actively working to threaten our freedom.

And the “cash value” of repeated doses of this type of non-objectivity? The typical, casual reader will become more amenable to the Administration’s view of the problem. He will have a vague sense of uncertainty about the subject, leaving him unresistant to the notion that the threat we face comes from any form of “extremism”—whether practiced by terrorists or by the Tea Party.

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