Fort Hood: Speculation vs. facts

Yesterday a U.S. Army major opened fire on a military processing center at Fort Hood in Texas, killing 12 people and wounding 30, according to various media reports. Whenever major news breaks, information flies around fast and much of it turns out to be inaccurate.

This case was no different.

Early reports indicated that there were three shooters. Then there were reports that one of the shooters had been killed. Then there were reports that the main suspect — Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan — was the shooter who had been killed. Another report said a police officer had been killed. As I write this, the latest news is that there was only one shooter and he’s not dead but, rather, in stable condition after being shot. And the police officer who shot Hasan is injured but recovering from her injuries.

It is so difficult to get accurate information at times like this. When the media reported each of the things above, they were sourcing the claims to officials who spoke on the record. I believe the same official who reported that the suspect had been killed was the one who later said he was alive. So these reporters and editors weren’t exactly running wild with questionable information. They did their best even if it turned out that a lot of information was incorrect.

Nevertheless, let’s look at some of the other issues in how this news was handled, early on.

I’m actually glad that there wasn’t any immediate speculation (that I saw or read, at least) as to whether the act of terror was done by Muslims. Media outlets were extremely careful to not even bring up the issue of the U.S. military’s current battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. I only wish they wouldn’t speculate at all — the discussion I listened to (I forget which cable outlet) about whether the shooters (yes, plural) were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder was embarrassing and a waste of everybody’s time. I don’t mind a discussion of various possible motivations or a look at military terrorism in the past — which would bring up everything from the Weather Underground to disgruntled soldiers to Muslim attacks — but those discussions need to be careful and balanced.

Moving on, one NBC report I read said that the suspect had an “Arabic-sounding name.” I’m not quite sure what that even means. The line was later removed and then modified. Once the name was released, more details began to trickle out. ABC News’ Brian Ross described the suspect as a “recent convert to Islam.” Turns out he is Muslim but is not a recent convert, having been raised in Islam.

Soon there were other bits and fragments that indicated more of a religious angle. There were reports from a retired colonel who worked with Hasan. He said that Hasan had said Muslims should stand up and and “fight against the aggressor.” He also reported that Hasan was almost happy about the recent deathly shooting by a Muslim at a Little Rock military recruitment center.

Later in the day, this web posting allegedly made by Hasan came to light. In it, he defends the morality of suicide bombing. Here’s how the Associated Press quoted it:

“To say that this soldier committed suicide is inappropriate. Its more appropriate to say he is a brave hero that sacrificed his life for a more noble cause,” said the Internet posting. “Scholars have paralled (sic) this to suicide bombers whose intention, by sacrificing their lives, is to help save Muslims by killing enemy soldiers.”

One web site that did a good job of posting information and sourcing it well was The Lede Blog at the New York Times. You can start at the bottom and scroll up to get an idea of how details about the shooting and the shooter emerged. It runs from 4:07 PM when the first post was published and updates continue every few minutes throughout. There isn’t much discussion of religion, though. But an actual Times article about the suspect discusses his religion and how it relates to the shooting quite well.

There are, in fact, many good stories out there right now that neither over- nor under-play Hasan’s religion and the role it may have played in the shooting. But for an example of a major paper that didn’t handle it well, check out the lead story from the Los Angeles Times.

Now, I first came across this story shortly after it was published last night. I monitored it for several hours assuming it would be updated. It had not been updated by the time I had to give up and call it a night (or early morning).

FortHoodGateThe three reporters and additional contributor who penned the 18-paragraph story didn’t think that it’s relevant that Hasan had praised Muslim suicide bombers or that former colleagues report that he was pleased with Muslim shootings against military institutions or that Hasan’s family says he was distressed by news he faced deployment to the Middle East. None of these things, apparently, are newsworthy to the Times, at least not in comparison with similar reports elsewhere.

The words “Muslim” and “Islam” don’t appear in the early story. Instead we get this:

Base personnel have accounted for more suicides than any other Army post since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, with 75 tallied through July of this year. Nine of those suicides occurred in 2009, counting two in overseas war zones.

Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, has been leading an effort to reduce the number of Army suicides, which has climbed sharply this year, possibly as a result from long and repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is all very interesting but I am not sure what it has to do with the tragic loss of life Ft. Hood experienced yesterday.

The suspect was never deployed — much less in a long or repeated fashion — to Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else. And precisely no one committed suicide yesterday. This story isn’t long — maybe 40 sentences in all. To waste valuable space on something that doesn’t really relate to the incident at hand — particularly while working way too hard to avoid the big elephant in the room — just shows bad news sense.

There’s being cautious and then there’s just being uninformative.

An update now: The latest Los Angeles Times update on this story does include a wide range of information. It’s possible that it was hard — especially in an era of shrinking newsrooms — for a major West Coast newspaper to gather its limited East Coast and Texas resources quickly. Still, other news organizations got the job done.

We’ll be looking at some other coverage of this tragic story as the day continues. Please let us know if you’ve seen particularly good or bad coverage. And, obviously, this is the place to discuss the media coverage — not to vent about the military policies linked to this tragedy or to make hateful, simplistic statements about Islam.

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  • Jane

    For all of the victims and their families – there is a book written by a school shooting survivor named Missy Jenkins, who was paralyzed from the chest down, called “I Choose to be Happy” at missyjenkins.com. The book will not end your pain, but it will help ease it. God bless you all.

  • http://kneelingcatholic.blogspot.com kneeling catholic

    you’re right about the reporting!

    I don’t believe Nidal Malik Hasan could have been in the Army for very long. As an MD, a Major is just getting started.

    It is puzzling that Hasan chose to wait and execute his ‘Allahu Akbar!’ under President Obama. Didn’t the President go to Cairo to announce that we don’t hate Muslims, (any more)?

    Didn’t he invite Muslims over to the White House for a Ramadan feast? Oh wait, that was President Bush. my bad.

    K.C.

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  • Jerry

    This is clearly a story that will cause quite a few bigots to come out of the woodwork. I imagine you’ll have to spike a few posts by that ilk.

    This story is a classic example of the problem of instant reporting as you pointed out. We don’t know all the facts yet. For example, there’s one story I saw yesterday http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/nadal-malik-hasan-wanted-army-family/story?id=9008184 there the major was insulted repeatedly by being called “camel jockey”. Whether or not that is true and what part that might have played in this atrocity is as far as I know, an outstanding question.

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  • http://kneelingcatholic.blogspot.com kneeling catholic

    Hey Jerry!

    I have a hard time believing your “camel jockey” stories.

    1) in today’s army such ethnic slurs are reportable…It should not take very long to see if the mass murderer ever registered an ‘equal opportunity’ complaint. I bet not.

    2) the murderer was an officer. Enlisted, who might make such remarks among themselves, would never do that to an officer. That leaves officers as your name-calling suspects, and medical ones at that. No way!

    3) we are talking about a 39 year old man not a 13 year old. The murderer knew what he was in for–deployments–when he -not so very long ago- enlisted. This looks like a calculated act, perhaps by a lone individual, perhaps not.

    k.c.

  • Northcoast

    With nearly instant on the spot news reporting of traumatic events, there is little time to collect facts and no time to check them. It shouldn’t be surprising that so many errors were included in early reports, and I would certainly associate the major’s name with possible Muslim afiliation.

  • Dave G.

    there the major was insulted repeatedly by being called “camel jockey”. Whether or not that is true and what part that might have played in this atrocity is as far as I know, an outstanding question.

    How is that different than anyone saying ‘I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I heard this about the shooter…’? Especially when you are quick to condemn the ‘bigots’ who will come out of the woodwork.

  • Northeasterner

    Here is the angle I want to see explored:

    If it is true that the shooter left plenty of evidence of extremist Islamic beliefs on the Internet and elsewhere, than this incident represents a massive failure of the Army’s internal security apparatus; the Criminal Investigative Division and other agencies.

    I was an Army soldier at Fort Hood. I held a Top Secret clearance and I know that every part of my background was scrutinized. Every officer must have at least a Secret clearance.

    Were Army security personnel forced to back off due to political correctness? Is anyone even going to ask the question?

    If George Bush can be blamed for what FEMA didn’t do in New Orleans, or the crimes that soldiers commited in Abu Ghraib; then this Commander-in-Chief should answer for this massive failure on his watch. I have no confidence that the media will explore this angle.

  • Jerry

    How is that different than anyone saying ‘I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I heard this about the shooter…’?

    Because it was in a news report and presumably came directly from the shooter’s family. Or do we just distrust anything in the media on general principles?

  • Dave G.

    I guess you missed my point. You suggested bigots would be coming out of the woodwork. Why? What would these bigots say or believe? And why should we believe this so easily? Is it so easy to believe one thing and not the other? That’s what I was getting at.

  • Jerry

    Dave G. Stories like this one illustrates the point: Muslim image campaigns suffer after Fort Hood shootings http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-11-06-muslim-image-campaigns_N.htm because we’ll start seeing “all Muslims…” From that story:

    Army statistics show that as of April 2008, there were 1,563 active-duty soldiers who identified themselves as Muslims and 436 Army National Guard members and 581 Army reservists.

  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy

    I can appreciate your (Mollie) saying that you’re glad the media did not speculate early on, but the problem to me seemed to be the opposite, certainly with TV/radio coverage in which “experts” are on the show and they say emphatically that this is NOT terrorism. As the data roll in, the media are reluctant to make inferences that relate to the possible motives if they relate to Islam and anti-American sentiment. We see it in much of today’s day-after print and tv/radio reporting on the story. A certain level of denial seems to set in. It is hard to avoid the contrast with a story, say, about the guy who killed Tiller, or other stereo-typical, made for “Law and Order” Christian nutcases.

  • Michael Garmahis

    exclusive photo: Nidal Malik Hasan in Muslim clothes smiling hours before Fort Hood massacre

  • Jerry

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091106/ap_on_go_ot/us_fort_hood_shooting_suspect was an interesting and nuanced view of Hasan and his potential motives.

  • Dave G.

    Jerry,

    I notice that the headline says “Muslim image campaigns suffer after Fort Hood shootings” , while the first sentence qualifies it a little:

    The tragic shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, allegedly by an Arab-American Army psychiatrist, may deal a severe blow to image campaigns launched by Arab and Muslim groups after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

    Note that qualifier: MAY. That’s ‘MAY deal a severe blow.’ A little different than the headline. Why is it so quick to assume that after only a day, when so much of the coverage I’ve read and watched has been ‘let’s not jump to conclusions.’ Conclusions about some and not others? Makes you wonder. Don’t think I don’t.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m wondering about the quickness President Obama spoke out in favor of not jumping to conclusions. Wasn’t he the one who almost immediately slandered an Irish Catholic cop who was merely doing his job.
    P. Obama would have been more credible if he had something along the lines of “Don’t do to a Moslem what I did to a Catholic.”

  • Dave G.

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan,

    That was my point all along. Why would they be so cautious about jumping to conclusions about one person or set of people, and yet turn around and accept accusations and conclusions about another? The ‘they’ being the MSM.