Jumping to Conclusions in Oklahoma City?
By Penny Bender Fuchs
Penny Bender Fuchs is director of career placement and professional development at the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Ibrahim Ahmad sat quietly behind an array of microphones, reluctant to talk to yet another crush of reporters about how for a single day the world thought he had blown up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Ahmad, a Jordanian American, had been traveling from his Oklahoma City home to Jordan on April 19, the day the 4,800-pound bomb ripped through the building, killing more than 160 people.
Scooped up in the FBI's initial dragnet, he was questioned in Chicago, and then again in London, where British authorities grilled him for six hours. "When they said, 'You are under arrest in connection with the bombing,' I thought that was the end of the world for me," he told reporters.
But it soon became clear that domestic right-wing extremists were the prime suspects in the case. Did the media jump too quickly to speculate that the bombing was the work of Middle Eastern terrorists? Or were they simply reporting what federal law enforcement presumed for the first day-and-a-half after the explosion?
Either way, "they blew it," says Jeff Cohen, executive director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal watchdog group that monitored coverage of the bombing. No matter what law enforcement said behind the scenes, the press went overboard on the Middle East angle and underplayed other scenarios, he contends.
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.
Federal law enforcement officials cautioned reporters about naming potential suspects. On April 20, the FBI agent in charge in Oklahoma City, Weldon Kennedy, said, "We have not ruled out any motive or any avenue of investigation at this point." But authorities who couldn't be quoted by name said their first suspicion was radical Islamic terrorists. Buttressing such comments was an all-points bulletin broadcast on the day of the blast describing the suspects as two men of "Middle Eastern appearance" with "dark hair and beards."
Hamzi Moghrabi, chairman of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, blames the media for a backlash against the American Muslim community during the first few days after the explosion. He cites dozens of harassment stories: A day care teacher and her students in Richardson, Texas, were menaced by a man who shouted, "Here's a bomb for you lady," and hurled a sack of cans at them. In Brooklyn, Arab American shopkeepers received death threats. Windows in mosques across the country were broken. 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.
Arab groups are particularly angry at CNN, which identified four innocent Arab Americans in connection with the bombing, and CBS, mostly for interviewing Steven Emerson, a journalist who has studied radical Islamic terrorism for several years and produced the documentary, "Jihad in America," which aired on PBS last November.
"We said what the police and the FBI told us," says Ed Turner, CNN's executive vice president. "We didn't make this up. Given the circumstances, at the time, what we did was proper." He also says broadcasting the names of the four Arab American suspects was "part of the story. We're not in the business of keeping secrets from our viewers."
CBS officials did not return calls.
Emerson has been the target of some media critics and Muslim Americans. The main reason, they say, was his comment on CBS that the bomb was intended "to inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Middle Eastern trait." But Emerson, a freelance writer and producer (who has written for AJR), says he was referring only to a fanatical minority in the Islamic community. He points out that he was only one of many experts interviewed about the bombing who concluded that there were similarities between Oklahoma City and Middle Eastern terrorism.
The initial reporting did not tar the entire Muslim community, Emerson says. "Were there despicable outbreaks of harassment? Unfortunately, yes." But "to say that all Muslims were blamed is an absolute canard, and the charge of racism against Muslims is a canard designed to justify radical Islamic activities in this country."
Emerson supports the decision to report the possible link to Middle East terrorism. "There was no doubt" that's what the FBI and other law enforcement agencies suspected, he says. "Is it ethical to report every single lead? I don't think so." But when it is as important as this lead was, "there's nothing wrong with that at all."
The FBI had strong reasons to suspect a Middle East connection, according to one federal law enforcement official who asked not to be identified: The bomb was similar to others set by Islamic terrorists; threats of revenge had been made by Islamic radicals after the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, a key defendant in the World Trade Center bombing; and Oklahoma City has been a gathering place for Islamic radicals in the past.
The official agreed with Emerson's assessment that the reporting was fair: "It is important that the press operate with the freedom of speculation and the freedom to be wrong... To some extent Middle Easterners suffer from the press that surrounds terrorism. But I don't think that means there should be a [news] blackout."
Emerson, however, is critical of some of the coverage. The names of Ahmad and the three other Arab Americans "should not have been leaked," Emerson says.
James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, says the problem with coverage of his community goes beyond this incident: "There is a deep and pervasive bias in the culture as a whole" against Middle Easterners, who are viewed as "fat oil sheiks trying to buy up America, or as terrorists."
Adding to the mix is "this cottage industry of experts that has grown up over the past 15 years," Zogby continues. "They speak off-the-cuff. Their words are measured by nothing more than sound bites." Reporters latch onto them because they have "something to offer that the culture is ready to hear."
Echoing Zogby, 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."