Thu 6 May 2010
Photos juxtaposed on May 6 by the New York Post, tabloid journalism at its most blatant
Faisal Shahzad, not your typical terrorist: unless you think being a Pakistani Muslim makes you a typical terrorist. Anyone reading yesterday’s New York Post (Wednesday, May 5) and taking the blustered and bloated tabloid rhetoric seriously could easily make such an assumption. I do not, as a rule, read tabloids, although seeing what many others do read is a useful reality check from time to time. But on the train home from Manhattan yesterday there was a crumpled up newspaper under the train seat and at least 45 minutes to unwind. The cover was, for a change, not a pun. It might be called a revelation, as it read: “REVEALED: WHY HE DID IT. EXCLUSIVE. Revenge for US drone attacks on Taliban terrorists.” Six pages (and more) were devoted to the story, although there was little that I found exclusive in the shoddy news reporting and vengeful commentary by the tabloid’s stalking heads.
Let’s start with the cover and what the tabloid pictures for us. A smiling dude with sunglasses and short hair suggests that you can no longer profile would-be terrorists as Taliban-bearded and wearing robes (which none of those engaged in terrorist acts in the U.S. have ever done). On p. 5 there is a picture of Faisal holding his newborn child with a caption that notes he is “venting his hatred to interrogators.” On p. 7 we see a smiling Faisal and his wife holding their baby with the caption “FAMILY MAN.” What kind of a man could bring life into this world, care for a small child, go through the motions of a normal American dream life and then pile bomb material in a used Nissan hoping to kill other fathers, other mothers, other children? Why, of course, it must be there are beasts among us and that this “Beast turned his American dream into a nightmare.”
The Times Square Bomber story is tabloid paradise precisely because it is about a hellish act in the real world. Had the bomb gone off, I could easily have been one of the thousands of people who walk through this area on a continuous basis. No matter where you live in the world, you could have been a victim. Muslims could easily have been victims. There is no excuse for such a terrorist act and most Muslims, many of whom are victims of terrorist acts in their own countries, do not condone such violence. Name-calling may provide venting room for readers, but calling Faisal a beast tells us little about what drove someone who would seem to have everything going for him as well as a young family to such a desperate act. The coverage in tabloid speak failed to note a rather important difference in this case: it was not a suicide attempt, not like 9/11 in this respect. At some level this “beast” thought he could escape, so what kind of a “beast” must Muhammad Atta have been? Or all beasts the same, or more sadistically, are all Muslims or all Pakistanis potentially the same?
The first page of coverage bullets the neutral news items that all can agree upon. Pakistani authorities have arrested as many as eight suspects in Pakistan (none of the latter commentaries reflect on what this means about support for such actions in Pakistan), President Obama said that America will not be intimidated, the suspect is still being interrogated, the suspect had managed to slip FBI surveillance and almost escaped by the no-fly list mix-up by a flight out of JFK. This was the basic news; it was hardly exclusive since these same stories were being broadcast everywhere, including al-Jazeera. On page 8 the news as such turns pure tabloid. The tabloid’s D.C. Bureau Chief Charles Hurt headlines: “White House gets off its butt this time.” Not able to chastise President Obama for a slow reaction, the spin of the story is that Obama was not guilty of a “slow, tepid and detached response” this time around. But hold the applause, please. “This is a welcome development in a president who last year told an audience in Egypt that it was part of his job as president to defend Islam.” Not mentioned in this swipe is that in this broad sense Obama has likewise pledged to defend Judaism or Christianity or any of the myriad faiths that Americans have a right to practice. It is the job of the President of the United States to defend all Americans. To imply, as this rhetoric clearly does, that President Obama is defending Islam at America’s expense is to totally ignore what he said in his speech. Unlike Mr. Hurt (what an appropriate name for a schlock journalist), President Obama does not assume that the world’s billion plus Muslims are all terrorists in the waiting, nor does he blame (and neither did President Bush) American Muslims as a whole for the actions of the extremists.
The New York Post did not stop with six pages, but added more ammunition in their crusade to denigrate President Obama and praise any cog in Rupert Murdoch’s anything-but-fair-and-balanced media empire. For yellow journalism in the textbook sense, there is the Michael Goodwin column on page 11 with the title “US Muslims finally take right stand.” The article begins: “Events in the Times Square attempted bombing are unfolding in predictable fashion. The chief suspect is an educated, middle-class Muslim who …” Predictable to whom but the Murdoch empire that makes large profits by spewing hate and fear mongering? Might a reader respond to this phrasing by thinking, in Peter Kingish terms, that maybe all educated, middle-class Muslims should be under FBI surveillance? But here the story appears to be that there is “one big difference that separates this case from others”. The difference for the smiling reporter is that “A major Islamic group is denouncing terrorism and calling on Muslims to show loyalty to America, or get out.” The group in question is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which the tabloid fails to mention is considered a marginal group by the vast majority of Muslims, much the same way that Mormons are not seen by most Christian sects as representative of the mainstream. But this is not the problem.
Here is the problem: an outright falsehood built over a statement issued by the Ahmadiyya spokesman Naseem Mahdi. The New York Post wants you to believe that “It is certainly the first to say so clearly what many Americans have been waiting to hear.” While a lawyer might view “clearly” here as an escape adverbial cushion, the clear implication is that other Muslim groups have not been willing to condemn terrorism, say, for example, the 9/11 bombing. Perhaps the tabloid should do some investigative research and look at the CAIR website. CAIR immediately issued a statement condemning the attempted bombing and welcoming the arrest of the perpetrator. If the tabloid really wanted clarity, they could check out previous statements by CAIR condemning all acts of terrorism. Goodwin uses his whole cloth page to teach unions (no doubt terrorist cells in his mind) a lesson in democracy and to charge President Obama with being a wimp and not trading absurd political barbs with Iran’s Ahmadinejad; even Hillary Clinton is pummeled for talking about “rules” about the United Nations. It is the terrorists who suspend rules, especially the rule of law, which is the fundamental basis of American society. This sad kind of opinionating suspends the rules of logic.
Then there are the sections actually labeled “Post Opinion.” Ralph Peters asserts “We can’t appease Islamists.” It must have been grating for this neocon to defend South Park’s self-censorship of a humorous spin on Muhammad, but how better to make the case that we are all a bunch of cowards and fools for allowing the First Amendment to bow before Islam. Peters thinks the “dogs of terror” smell our fear. No, the pundit has it backwards: they smell the chemical residues of bombs that have been successfully killing both terrorist leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan and innocent civilians. They are responding to our overstretched overseas belligerence, our continued occupation that has cost a great toll in civilian life, in combination with loudmouth fearmongers like those who write for the tabloids. Terrorists act as they do because they have little hope. Suicide bombers, for example, are not born but created by circumstances. They certainly do not fear our fear or our bluster.
Beneath Mr. Peters, no pun intended, is Michele Malkin, whose angry pluck outshines the speed of a puck from her hockey star namesake as it enters an opponent’s net. Since Faisal is a Jihadist, and several of these Jihadists have married American women for green cards, let’s blame our immigration system for not stopping them. Okay, so should we not allow any Muslim men to marry American women or Muslim women (you never know, of course) to marry American men, because thy probably all have green card envy and might be terrorists in sheepish clothing? Malkin suggests no strategy for a country founded by immigrants, but just berates the government because “we haven’t done a thing to stop them.” No thought is given to the possibility that her own bias may actually be one of the factors encouraging green carded terrorists.
There is more, of course. Representative Peter King uses the event as a “wakeup call” to garner more funds for security in New York City; his political savvy here in trying to get more funds actually trumps his normal vitriol against Muslims. Charles Simpson weighs, without prejudicing a particular view, the options of charging Faisal with treason, a very rare legal approach in the entire history of country. But by the time one gets to a semblance of balance, the scales have been tilted to revenge and sicking the dogs on “them” (and we all know who “they” are if we read the tabloids daily). As a result the level of hate is times (certainly not “The Times”) squared.
Daniel Martin Varisco
This commentary has also been posted on History News Network.
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