Journalism means never having to say you’re sorry

In comments to my post this weekend suggesting a few angles for coverage of Muslim protests against America and one of its resident’s films, reader Sari asked:

Why has there been virtually no journalistic comment on the antisemitic aspect?

If you’ve been following this story, you know that when news broke about the 14-minute YouTube clip of an anti-Muslim film, reporters wrote that the guy behind the film said he was Israeli-American and that the movie had been funded by “100 Jewish donors.” I earlier wrote that it would have been wise to couch the filmmaker’s claims with a hint more skepticism. But what has the media response been to its own advancement of information that turned out to be false?

Devin Harner, an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York, analyzed some of the missteps for PBS MediaShift. He highlighted an AP  story about “Sam Bacile,” was later outed as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Egyptian Coptic Christian and convicted felon.

The AP clearly dropped the ball on the original story, and perpetuated a latently anti-Semitic narrative that resulted in headlines such as “Israel Distances Itself from Prophet Muhammad Film” (as if the burden of distancing should be on them). They somehow figured out that Sam Bacile didn’t exist, and that his address and phone number were remarkably similar to that of Nakoula.

However, before this happened, there was some collective uncertainty surrounding Bacile, and, before I went to bed Wednesday night, I scoured Google News one more time, and was treated to retread stories such as “What We Know About ‘Sam Bacile‘” on NPR’s news blog, which admits, rather tediously, in its second paragraph, that “the bottom line is that we know very little about ‘Sam Bacile.'” The most compelling thing about the story, up to this point, is its use of scare quotes to establish symbolic distance, and to tell us that they’re onto him, even if they’re not.

Harner has some interesting thoughts on how the use of the first person plural displaces some of the blame from the journalists who got caught advancing a false narrative. Anyway, he highlights how some journalists’ b.s. detectors went off in response to the early reports (“Savvy bloggers detected B.S. in Bacile’s story. It’s the sort of work that the reporters should have done before they ran the original story.”). He adds:

The “credible” mainstream media’s complicity in perpetuating the falsehood is tragic as well. But perhaps more tragic is their collective inability to admit that they were played, and the fact that they posted “updated” stories, and “extras” shedding new light on Bacile, and in the process buried the original, erroneous stories under a blizzard of faux-mystery and spin.

Now, I wonder what you think about this. Harner points out how many media outlets failed to update Associated Press story after a correction was sent out. That is a problem, a very real problem in this internet age, but we should be careful about pointing blame to the right folks. On the one hand, yes, media outlets should be much more careful about being right with their breaking news, but also media outlets that take news wires and feeds should be careful about updating and running corrections.

In general, though, I agree with the general complaint about inability to admit error. I’ve been ruminating on this issue for months. We all make mistakes. Some of them are ones we deeply regret. I’m no exception. I was just this weekend reminded about a piece I wrote five years ago for a major daily that I wished I’d done differently. But I do wonder whether journalists are particularly bad at being reflective or taking criticism. It just seems that the posture we feel most comfortable with is “defensive.” Part of that is because everyone’s a critic. Part of that is because so much of what critics say is just not meaningful. You wouldn’t believe the trollish behavior that comes along with the first time your byline is put to paper. We’re trained to be skeptical and we’re even skeptical of our critics.

Still, I think the profession would be very well served by more reflection and humility. And when we make mistakes, I would hope that readers and viewers would be willing to hear a heartfelt apology and pledge to do better. But I’m curious what you all think. Few people will defend the early mistakes we saw on this story as it relates to the advancement of some anti-semitic narratives. But what are the larger lessons?

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  • Speculation, and in this case, prejudicial narratives, are very difficult to put back in the bottle once they’ve been released.

    The “Story” is now that the film caused the chaos, and the film had Jewish, or Coptic, or Christian ties. It doesnt matter, according to the MSM. I am still aghast that the media is reporting the almost silly line that this little-known film has been viewed all around the world and causing such fervor.

  • Julia

    “the almost silly line that this little-known film has been viewed all around the world and causing such fervor”.
    It’s on YouTube and spread like wildfire. Supposedly the cops have connected that guy in California to the upload of the film to YouTube.

  • Julia

    I’m disappointed that there is distinction being made between something being perfectly legal and something being truly despicable and reckless. Legality should be the minimum threshold for behavior. Some things are horrible even though legal.

    When was it that this distinction ceased to exist?
    We didn’t used to think that if something was not illegal, then it was perfectly fine by all relevant criteria.

  • Julia


    I’m disappointed that there is NO distinction being made between something being perfectly legal and something being truly despicable and reckless.

  • Ben

    Good food for thought. Should we view breaking news as a constantly updating/correcting stream of stories that improves in accuracy over time, or view each individual story as something that lives on in perpetuity on the Internet so must be corrected with the latest information? Most probably the latter, but the former idea holds some currency just by virtue of workflow, especially in the midst of a major days-long story like this one. In the case of ‘Bacile,’ given the way journalists were played, it probably ought to be fixed in previous stories.

  • dalea

    Channel 7, ABC, has just reported some new information that may help give some more meaning to this story. The lede was that the family of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has joined him in hiding. What we did not know was that the LA County Sheriff’s Department has had deputies stationed in the home since the story broke. This puts a different light on the midnight ride. The family came out of their home with the same disguise as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. They got into unmarked cars and were driven away. Amazingly, the media did not follow. This means that something very major is going on. And that there have been credible threats against Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. So, maybe the midnight interrogation was not a violation of free speech but a means to move a target to safety. People need to consent to having deputies stationed in their home, I believe. And only do so in dangerous situations.

    Bear in mind, Los Angeles is the media capitol of the world. There are more media types, especially new media, here per acre than anywhere else on earth. Current TV is trying to be a new media cable station. Of their 7 major politics programs, 1 is in DC, 2 are in NYC, 2 are in Los Angeles/Burbank and 2 are in SF. When 4 out of 7 political programs are on the West Coast, there is a change going on.

  • dalea

    Something else that has been getting newes coverage here, don’t know about elsewhere. The cast and crew of the film have been very public about how they have been used. The film as shown is not the one that was filmed; a whole new dialog has been dubbed in. They claim they made an historical film that did not reference Islam.

    I don’t know if this is illegal, but it is regarded as extremely sleazy film making. This comes from the 70’s when by using body doubles and dubbing, some films were converted to porn. Looks for some legal action on this. There is a limit on how much change a producer can do to actors in a finished product. Matter of artistic freedom.

  • MJBubba

    I have a question about the film. It was news last week that the original actors’ lines had been overdubbed with a different English script than what had originally been filmed. Also, I recall hearing (on NPR, I think) last Thursday that the Arabic overdubbing had not been done by the original filmmakers. I would like some Arabic-speaker to say something about how accurate the Arabic is to the English soundtrack? Since the film was intended to provoke, the Arabic could be used to inspire Muslim mob violence without any exaggeration needed. However, I recall how an Egyptian paper had embellished the Danish cartoons to make them even more provocative.

    • mollie

      While it’s possible an Egyptian paper also embellished the cartoons, the imams who took the cartoons on tour added cartoons that were never published in any newspaper and seemed to have been provided by the imams themselves. They were far more vile than any of the political criticism that was in the Danish cartoons. That part of the story was never told very well.

  • JWB

    I assume it’s fairly common for journalists to run “accurate” (in the sense of that’s what the guy said to them) quotes from figures swept up in controversial news stories who turn out upon further investigation to have been lying in the interview. Does that really violate some sort of norm of the profession? (Heck, how could you report on a same-day basis on a politician’s press conference when there hadn’t been time to thoroughly fact check all the perhaps fishy-sounding and conveniently self-serving things he’d said?) Why isn’t what the guy says about himself to the media independently newsworthy even before his cover story falls apart?

    • mollie

      It’s a tricky area. I mean, obviously 100% of politicians lie 100% of the time (give or take) and reporters never have trouble hucking that silliness and adding to it.
      I do think that when you’re dealing with a single shady source who’s basically saying something fantastical (e.g. all of my donors for my inexplicably high-priced, but low-budgety looking film were Jewish) that reporters should think twice before printing it up and saying “hey, he said it.” Or even if you do run the accurate account, perhaps getting anything additional in there such as “film analysts say the budget appeared to be in the low tens of dollars as opposed however many millions he claimed” and “there is literally no evidence that any donors were Jewish or that this man is Israeli” or whatever you should add in there. But I still think the original comments were newsworthy. They speak to his character, if nothing else. Just how they’re handled apart from the reporting of what he said is also worth thinking about …

      • sari

        Coming late to the thread due to holy day (Shanah Tovah to those who celebrate).

        My concern, Mollie, in light of what happened in the aftermath of 9/11 and has happened repeatedly since, is that Israel and the Jewish People are unfairly assigned blame. The media played into that narrative, one which can have deadly consequences for Jews here and abroad. So, I’d say that whatever “Sam Bacile” and his cronies said, it should have been with reported with some sort of disclaimer–alleged, claim to be, unsubstantiated reports, authorities are trying to determine the veracity, etc. A little bit of research before going to press would have been helpful.

        The media and government seem fixated on the negative consequences for American interests and the residents of N. African and Middle Eastern countries and have expressed very little concern for the collateral damage done to innocents by bad reporting. One result of the Sikh shooting and the riots overseas has been stepped up security at many Jewish institutions, which equates to praying in an armed camp. Kinda ruins the atmosphere.