Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Report, Don't Guess

In Eastern Europe and the Levant, conspiracy theories are the very stuff of life.  Although we Americans certainly have our share -- did you hear about the time Roy Cohn took Elvis for a ride in his UFO and they shot Kennedy together? -- our natural tendency is more manichaean.  We like our white hats and our black hats, our easily-identified enemies, and even though the world stubbornly refuses to conform to our vision, we keep looking out the window and seeing what we want to see.

So it is that, less than a day after the Boston Marathon bombings, a fair number of Americans began speculating on just which of the usual suspects to blame.  We heard a guest commentator on NPR hinting darkly about the right-wing "patriot" groups that have, apparently, been multiplying in recent years.  To the credit of WBUR and On Point's listeners, a caller quickly shut her up, with a reminder that it is irresponsible to speculate in the absence of evidence.

That scolding carried no weight with the people at Tea Party Nation (an actual website!), where Judson Philips writes:

Unfortunately the sad truth is we will be hit again.  It will happen sooner or later.  It will probably be sooner than later. 
There are two reasons why we will be hit again.  First, we have a determined enemy who hates us.  Second, we have a government that is not committed to protecting America.
It is a pretty safe bet right now that this attack was carried out by an Islamist.  It was a well-coordinated attack.  In its publication, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called for just this kind of attack.
While the government and media have fallen all over themselves to downplay this fact, there is a twenty-year-old Saudi student being detained as a “person of interest.”   Person of interest in a nice police term that is used for someone who is not under arrest and therefore does not have to be read his Miranda rights and who hopefully will not lawyer up.
Case closed, right?

For the record, this was posted at 7:08 this morning.  As of the 9:40 press conference, there was nobody in custody.  That "Saudi national" you keep hearing about, and whose rights Philips is so eager to set aside, appears to just be some student who got tackled by a patriotic bystander when he did what everybody else was doing, which was to run away from the explosion.  (That's per John Miller, the John L. Allen Jr. of crime reporting).

Gawker has a guide to even more of this paranoid twittery.

But the one who really frustrates us here is in another (and higher) class altogether: Terry Mattingly, at GetReligion.  In a rambling and self-referential post, Mattingly "waits for the religion shoe to drop in Boston," and gives fellow reporters instructions on how to handle the seemingly-inevitable.  He reminds them to help readers understand the different forms of Islam, and makes suitable comparisons to Christian terrorists such as Anders Beivik and Paul Hill.  All wise and appropriate.

And yet we are left, as so often in Terry's posts, with a nagging suspicion.  Why jump in with this piece now -- unless you are assuming that there will be a religion angle to the story as it develops?  Why drop the word "Islam" five times and "Muslim" three, if you are not trying to play up a little to the inevitable speculation about just what that religious angle may prove to be?  To hint, just a tiny bit, at what you think happened?

The problem is that times like this call restraint, for caution, and for patience.

Maybe we're being unfair.  But we wish that he had held back a little, and either refrained from publishing anything at all or simply written a short paragraph, reminding the pros that, if there does turn out to be a religious angle here, they have a duty to their readers to be as clear and specific about the details as they can be.  Which he did say, of course.

Or, as John L. Allen, Jr. said in the post below, "Getting the story right means you have to respect the complexity of reality."

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