Probing the mystery that is Sept. 11

First, a disclaimer: I expect that the following post will draw one or more comments that state the following theme, or variations on it: “The problem with this post is that this news story really isn’t an example of journalists failing to ‘get religion.’ This is just a messed up story. Period.”

When someone makes that comment I will tell them that I understand their point of view and part of me even agrees with them.

However, I am going to write the post anyway (with a strong hat tip to The Daily Caller, the website that first noted this bizarre example of what is almost certainly political correctness at the copy-desk level).

Don’t get me wrong. This particular Associated Press mini-story does involve religion — big time.

This story also contains an error linked to an infamous international network that, to say the least, is linked to religious extremism — big time.

But the error itself? Take a look at the following, which is most of the AP report in question. If there is a longer version of the story, please feel free to share it.

NEW YORK (AP) – A mock movie poster warns al-Qaida wants to return to New York City, but authorities say there’s no evidence of an actual threat.

Investigators learned about the online amateur graphic on Monday. The graphic shows the Manhattan skyline at sunset with “Al Qaeda” in bold type followed by “Coming Soon Again in New York.”

Al-Qaida has been blamed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which destroyed the World Trade Center and killed thousands of people.

New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne says an overseas, Arab-language Internet site posted the graphic on its “artwork and design” page. He says the NYPD has been monitoring the site.

So, how many of you read right through that third paragraph and then paused, before zipping back to read it again? Perhaps you then said, “Al-Qaida HAS BEEN BLAMED” for Sept. 11? Say what?

That is a very strange way to state the facts that have been reported time and time again and, oh by the way, confirmed by the voices that speak for this terrorist network. As The Daily Caller noted:

Though conspiracy theorists have suggested that other entities may have been behind 9/11, even al-Qaida has mocked such theories. Shortly after the 10th anniversary in 2011, al-Qaida responded — in an editorial in al-Qaida’s English language “Inspire” magazine — to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s suggestion that the United States itself may have been responsible:

“Why would Iran ascribe to such a ridiculous belief that stands in the face of all logic and evidence?” al-Qaida asked. “For them, al-Qaida was a competitor for the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised Muslims around the world … [Al-Qaida] succeeded in what Iran couldn’t. Therefore it was necessary for the Iranians to discredit 9/11 and what better way to do so? Conspiracy theories.”

When asked by the Caller about this strange, passive, “has been blamed” wording, the PR pro for the Associated Press emailed back: “We don’t doubt that AQ was behind 9/11.”

Good to know.

Now, GetReligion readers, here is my question: What is a simple, short, precise, accurate, easily attributable wording that the Associated Press could have used in this case? Does anyone out there want to play copy editor on this one?

IMAGE: The fake movie poster, care of the New York City Police department.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jeff

    A 2006 poll by Scripps Howard and Ohio University showed that slightly more than half of all Democrats professed belief in one or another form of 9/11 “Truth.”

    So one has to wonder if there may not be a little be more to this very strange wording than the Associated Press — doubtless staffed mostly by Democrats — is letting on.

    After all, at least according to the poll I reference above, the odds would seem likely to be even more or less that any given AP staffer professes one or another version of 9/11 “Truth.”

  • Jerry

    It’s inevitable that people like Jeff will bring in their political bias to make a political point unrelated to the topic. is a good review of various polls. The high level of ignorance and paranoia in American society is unfortunate but it applies to the left AND the right. And whether or not former President Bush knew of and allowed 9/11 to proceed to have an excuse to attack Iraq, students of history would know about FDR and Pearl Harbor conspiracy theory and the fact of Churchill and Enigma in the UK. So such phenomenon are nothing new.

    As far as the story itself goes, the most easily attributable wording is clear to me: quote the terrorists directly: “Al-Qaida took responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks…”

    But I have to say “how soon we forget”. Is that so far in the past and so fuzzy that we need to even have that sentence. I’m afraid but sad that we do.

  • Jeff


    What “political bias” am I bringing in here?

    I’d say that the only “political bias” being brought in here is your own — your seeming desire that nothing at all unpleasant or uncomfortable be said about Democrats, even if it’s relevant to media-coverage dominated by Democrats, and even if it’s *true.*

    Most journalists are Democrats and polling shows that half of Democrats have entertained 9/11 “Truth”, at least at one time and at least to some degree.

    Those facts matter and have to be acknowledged — however unpleasant or uncomfortable it might be to some — if what we are discussing is the very strange wording of a journalistic story that conveys ambivalence about whether or not Al Qaeda (or Al Qaeda alone) was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

    It could well be that there was no undertone of “Trutherism” at all in the wording.

    But it could also well be that there was.

    And I, for one, think that someone cares about the truth here — as opposed to political perceptions — ought to be willing to entertain both possibilities, each of which is perfectly reasonable, given the facts, to entertain.

    PS: If the media were dominated by Republicans and if an AP news story said that President Obama “is reported” to have been born in Hawaii or “claims” to have been born in Hawaii or “is alleged” to have been born in Hawaii I would feel the same way. You are right that there is plenty of paranoia among the American public. But there is at least as much among liberals as among conservatives, and since it is liberals who dominate the media, any paranoid thinking that creeps into journalistic writing is much more likely to be of a liberal sort than a conservative sort. Those are just the facts on the ground. Sorry if those facts are unpleasant or uncomfortable to you, but they are what they are.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    I’d say one conspiracy theory (that al-Qaida was not behind 9/11) is as unbelievable as the other (that AP’s strange wording has to do with a liberal agenda).

    As for tmatt’s original question …

    I say replace “has been blamed in” with “orchestrated.”

  • Jeff

    Bobby Ross Jr.,

    That’s a straw man and you know it. No one’s alleging a conspiracy. Just noting what opinion polling tell us about views among the demographic that makes up most of the MSM and wondering — only wondering — if those poll results might — I repeat might — tell us something — I repeat something — about the strange wording of the coverage here.

    Are you denying the Scripps Howard poll results, or is the existence of those poll results a conspiracy theory as well?

    And is it really as crazy to think that those poll results could be relevant here as it’s crazy to believe in 9/11 “Truth?” Really?

  • tmatt


    I have been in church for several hours and you got away with a major GR sin.

    A URL for your quoted poll, please. Pronto.

    This one: A 2006 poll by Scripps Howard and Ohio University…

  • Jeff


    Per your request, the Scripps Howard / Ohio University results:

    PS: I honestly don’t see why bringing this up is such a big deal. These are reputable social scientific poll results that show that lots and lots of people have doubts about 9/11 and that those people fall heavily within the demographic group from which journalists are drawn disproportionately. I’m not saying there’s necessarily an undertone of 9/11 “Truth” in the AP wording. I’m just saying there is reason to wonder, at least. Just as you were honest that the weird AP wording jumped out at you, as it did at me, I am being honest that the next that jumped out at me was that some undertone of 9/11 “Truth” might be why the wording was so weird. But it would have been at most a semi-conscious reflex on one staffer’s part, not some grand conspiracy at the AP. That’s all I’m trying to say.

  • Jeff

    The Scripps Howard / Ohio University findings were most widely publicized recently in this piece by Ben Smith (a liberal MSM journalist) in Politico (a mostly liberal MSM outlet):

    If these findings are part of some grand conspiracy theory on a par with 9/11 “Truth” itself, then Ben Smith and Politico must be part of it, along with me and Scripps Howard and Ohio University.

  • sari

    al-Qaida committed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist acts.

  • carl

    It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the wording “has been blamed” was deliberately chosen to present a neutral face to those who accept one conspriacy theory or another. Even the AP response was weasel-worded: “We don’t doubt that AQ was behind 9/11.” If they don’t doubt it, they why didn’t they say so.

    Sari has it exactly right. The correct phrase would be al-Qaida committed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist acts. That communicates intention, responsibility, and action.


  • sari


    Those were my thoughts, exactly.

    Rather than assume political bias, we might also consider the media’s clear fear of giving offense to Muslims, particularly in NYC.

  • Bill P.

    In general, I’m not a fan of passive tense in reporting. “So-and-so has been criticized…” by who?

    To answer the question, sari has the right response, but “spearheaded” is, for me, a better word.

    If attestation is critical, “al-Qaida has admitted spearheading the attacks.”

  • Petrus

    “…largely held to be responsible for…”
    “…has taken credit for the Sept 11…”

  • Lynn

    Clearly al-Qaida affiliates committed the atrocities of 9/11. You can debate whose behind al-Qaida. Maybe you can debate whether al-Qaida is a religious extremist group or just political, but they were terrorists who wanted to inspire fear, intimidate, or provoke retaliation.

    What is a simple, short, precise, accurate, easily attributable wording that the Associated Press could have used in this case?

    Perhaps the wording intended by this news story is ‘Be Afraid’ because terror tries to coerce with fear.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    How about: al-Quaeda operatives planned and executed the 911 attack.

    bin Laden said so. Investigators agreed.

  • Cathy G.

    I’d go with “took credit for.”
    (And how do you know it was the copy editor and not the reporter?)