Center for Strategic Communication

[ by Charles Cameron — headlines, McVeigh, mea culpa, Breivik, media, guessing games and blame, puns, great tweet ]


That’s yesterday’s Charlotte Observer‘s headline and opening paras for an article they reposted from Slate, which had more cautiously titled it What’s on a Ku Klux Klan Membership Application?

We’ll come back to that headline later.


Okay, seriously.

Educated guesses can prove wrong in retrospect. Educated guesses can lay considerable blame. Educated guesses can have pernicious side effects.

When a bomb ripped through the Federal building in Oklahoma City, many people’s first reaction — including my own — was that it was probably the work of Al-Qaida “Muslim terrorists”.

The media initially broadcast the “Islamist” theory of the bombing quite extensively, and one of the results, according to Penny Bender Fuchs in an American Journalism Review piece titled Jumping to Conclusions in Oklahoma City? was:

A Muslim woman who suffered a miscarriage in her Oklahoma City home said she was afraid to seek medical attention because a crowd of people was throwing stones at her house.

Two more clips from that article:

Within hours of the bombing, most network news reports featured comments from experts on Middle Eastern terrorism who said the blast was similar to the World Trade Center explosion two years earlier. Newspapers relied on many of those same experts and stressed the possibility of a Middle East connection.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, called it a “Beirut-style car bombing” in the first sentence of its story. The New York Post quoted Israeli terrorism experts in its opening paragraph, saying the explosion “mimicked three recent attacks on targets abroad.”

“We were, as usual, following the lead of public officials, assuming that public officials are telling us the truth,” says John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine and author of a book on coverage of the Persian Gulf War. He believes the media overemphasized the possible Middle Eastern link and ignored domestic suspects because initially the police were not giving that angle much thought.

“Reporters can’t think without a cop telling them what to think,” MacArthur says. “If you are going to speculate wildly, why not say this is the anniversary of the Waco siege? Why isn’t that as plausible as bearded Arabs fleeing the scene?”

Most news organizations did mention other possible culprits. They noted the bombing took place on the second anniversary of the government raid on the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, suggesting that homegrown terrorists might be responsible. But that angle was buried in most stories.


Jim Lobe, bureau chief for Inter Press Service, says tying the bombing solely to the Middle East “was in a sense a comforting story for Americans.”

Inter Press, a small wire service for papers in the Third World and development agencies in Europe and Canada, was perhaps the first news outlet to raise the possibility that domestic paramilitary fanatics carried out the bombing.

“Of course the Middle East has to be considered,” Lobe says. “But when you considered the weight of all the evidence, it takes you a different direction.”

Lobe, who is familar with militia groups, says many news organizations failed to notice a big clue: traffic on the Internet detailing bomb recipes and talking about the need to avenge the government’s attack on the Branch Davidians. He says the bombing coverage offers “a major lesson for the profession.”

Will that lesson be heeded? MacArthur doesn’t think so. The media are doing a poor job covering Timothy McVeigh and the militia groups around the country, he says. “They are going to turn them into oddball crazies, caricaturing McVeigh as a trailer park terrorist, which is no better than the caricature of the Arabs.”


Something similar happened in the immediate aftermath of the Oslo bombing, as this account from the media watch-dog group FAIR details:

On news of the first round of attacks–the bombs in Oslo–CNN’s Tom Lister (7/22/11) didn’t know who did it, but knew they were Muslims: “It could be a whole range of groups. But the point is that Al-Qaeda is not so much an organization now. It’s more a spirit for these people. It’s a mobilizing factor.” And he speculated confidently about their motives:

You’ve only got to look at the target–prime minister’s office, the headquarters of the major newspaper group next door. Why would that be relevant? Because the Norwegian newspapers republished the cartoons of Prophet Mohammad that caused such offense in the Muslim world…. That is an issue that still rankles amongst Islamist militants the world over.

CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank (7/22/11) took to the airwaves to declare that “Norway has been in Al-Qaeda’s crosshairs for quite some time.” He added that the bombing “bears all the hallmarks of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization at the moment,” before adding, almost as an afterthought, that “we don’t know at this point who was responsible.”

On Fox News Channel’s O’Reilly Factor (7/22/11), guest host Laura Ingraham declared, “Deadly terror attacks in Norway, in what appears to be the work, once again, of Muslim extremists.” Even after Norwegian authorities arrested Breivik, former Bush administration U.N. ambassador John Bolton was in disbelief. “There is a kind of political correctness that comes up when these tragic events occur,” he explained on Fox’s On the Record (7/22/11). “This kind of behavior is very un-Norwegian. The speculation that it is part of right-wing extremism, I think that has less of a foundation at this point than the concern that there’s a broader political threat here.”


Peter Bergen, who wrote the book more than once on Bin Laden and his demise, recently discusses the topic, Right-wing extremist terrorism as deadly a threat as al Qaeda? for CNN — some key findings for perspective:

The word “terrorism” in the United States usually brings to mind plots linked in some way to al Qaeda, while the danger posed to the public by white supremacists, anti-abortion extremists and other right-wing militants is often overlooked.

Militants linked to al Qaeda or inspired by jihadist ideology have carried out four terrorist attacks in the United States since September 11, which have resulted in 17 deaths. Thirteen of them were in a shooting incident at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009.

By contrast, right-wing extremists have committed at least eight lethal terrorist attacks in the United States that have resulted in the deaths of nine people since 9/11, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation.

And if, after investigation, Sunday’s attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin is included in this count, the death toll from right-wing terrorism in the U.S. over the past decade rises to 15.

The shooting suspect, Wade Michael Page, posed with a Nazi flag on his Facebook page and has played a prominent role in “white power” music groups. The FBI is investigating the case as a “domestic terrorist-type incident.”

Here’s a link to the SPLC’s updated roster: Terror From the Right: Plots, Conspiracies and Racist Rampages Since Oklahoma City.

And there are no doubt other threats, some from potential left wing sources — and some from other half-crazed wingless entities who roam among us on two legs.


I said we’d come back to that Charlotte Observer headline later. Here we are:


That tweet from friend JM Berger — think about it, “veil” suggests “Muslim”, doesn’t it? — and “hood” means “KKK”? — that’s really quite a double-barreled pun — and, given the context, it makes so much more sense!

JM gets my Tweet of the Month award.