August 2, 2016 - Shibley Telhami

August 2, 2016
Shibley Telhami

As a professional journalist, nothing makes me crazier is when a respected news outlet, or worse, virtually all news outlets repeat as established fact something for which they have little supporting evidence, which they are in non position to evaluate.

Here’s an example from the case of Albert Nisman, the Argentine prosecutor who was found dead in his apartment on the eve of a crucial moment in his campaign to accuse the President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of something pretty close to treason. The death is generally considered a suicide, but plenty of people, including Nisman’s ex-wife asserted he’d been murdered.

The key piece of evidence was the gun, which ballistics test affirmed was the weapon that killed him. But the evidence that he’d used the gun on himself, as opposed to having someone else use it to kill him, was a lot less conclusive.

Nisman had been given the gun by a man with, it turns out some apparent ties to some nasty people in Argentine intelligence, who was working as Nisman’s assistant in his Get-the-President Project. This key bit of info was repeated again and again by The New York Times, and every other American news source I could find as if it were a fact.

But wait a minute: only two people could have verified that Nisman got the gun for this marginal semi-spook, and one them, Nisman was dead. In other words the only evidence for the source of the death-weapon was this guy, who it turns out, may have had his own reasons to spin the case.

I’m not saying I know he was lying. There’s no way for me to know. But I am saying there was no way for the Times to know that his story was true. So, at the very least, they should have said, the only source for these conclusions…that this is how Nisman had the gun, and that he had it many hours before his autopsy suggested he died, and that he was given it by his assistant was the assistant himself. Period.

Why was this information so important, because it allowed the Times’ readers, other outlets’ news customers to draw their own conclusions.

This is exactly what happened with America’s news consumers in the case of Omar Mateen, the killer in the worst case of mass murder in American history, the June 13 slaughter of 49 people at the Pulse dance club in Orlando.

Within hours of the crime, most of the journalists covering the case were quoting source in the Orlando Police Department saying Mateen had claimed a connection to the Islamic State and that his motive was terrorism.  

Once again, this connection was reported as if it were established fact. In reality it was just something Mateen told Police, and subsequent investigation strongly suggested it was probably not true. It turned out …and was duly reported as it was discovered that Mateen had a long history of mental illness, of delusions and violence and manic behavior that was testified to by his ex-wife, his father and many who knew him. It also turned out, often his rages would be aimed, at least rhetorically, at gay people, and that at other times he visited gay clubs, including Pulse. There were even reports he had taken gay lovers from time to time.

As reporting clarified the background on Omar Mateen, listeners and readers and viewers started to draw their own conclusions, and guess what? They are pretty varied and nuanced.

In a poll taken two weeks after the Orlando murders one question asked was about the motivation of Omar Mateen. 31 percent said the influence of Islamic State-type radical Islamic terrorism, the lead of most of the first stories about the crime. But 21 percent said Mateen had been motivated by mental illness, 19 percent said it was a case of self-hatred by a man confused about his sexual identity, 16 percent said it was a simpler case of hatred of gays, lesbians, bi- and trabns-sexual people. Just two percent said Mateen had acted out of resentment of his treatment as a Muslim.

Even today, there is far too little solid evidence to support any definitive conclusion, but the spectrum of ideas gathered in this poll shows, if news media do their job and sort through all the evidence, their customers will know more and judge better.

Our guest today, Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution took that poll, and to him it shows something else encouraging – that even in a year of Islamic Terrorist violence around the world, and a lot of politicians stirring fear and hate towards Muslims, the overwhelming majority of responders rejected Mateen’s alleged terrorist identity in favor of other, more subtle, but in my opinion, more credible influences.

Reading Room

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a nonresident senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

“American attitudes toward Muslims and Islam” – Brookings Institution

“U.S. Relations with the Islamic World” – Brookings Insitutions

“American attitudes on refugees from the Middle East” – Brookings Institution

“Orlando, the Middle East, and the U.S. election” – Brookings Institution

“Measuring the backlash against the Muslim backlash” – Brookings Institution

“Shibley Telhami” – Wikipedia

“How to (almost) eliminate the partisan divide on the Middle East” – Washington Post

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