Missing the forest for the YouTube video

Much of the media spent yesterday not getting to the bottom of how the American Ambassador to Libya was assassinated on the anniversary of September 11 terror attacks but, rather, suggesting Mitt Romney was wrong to criticize the Obama administration for how it was handling protests against America.

But Godbeat reporters did a better job than many of their colleagues. In some cases, we saw great work, which I’ll get to. Before I get to that, a note of concern. Basically, any time there is breaking news involving violence, many unsubstantiated claims make their way into reports. Frequently these claims just aren’t true. (For just one example, compare this and this, one of which can not be true.) Probably the biggest problem we saw with that, Godbeat-wise, in this story was the claim that the assassination of the U.S. ambassador and murder of three of his colleagues were in response to the creation of an unbelievably bizarre anti-Islam film.

That belief — which sounds like it is completely untrue — led much of the feeding frenzy to uncover the makers and participants in the video. Now, the video may have played the role of pretext in recent anti-U.S. protests in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. But the plot is much thicker than this easy explanation would allow. In the case of Libya, this is looking like it was a coordinated attack on the occasion of the anniversary of the 9/11 terror bombings. It might be worth keeping in mind, if one is a savvy religion reporter, that in just the past few days we’ve seen a wave of bombings that killed 92 people in 13 Iraqi cities, a car bomb that killed 11 in Pakistan, a rocket attack in Afghanistan, an assassination attempt on the Yemeni defense minister (that killed 12), an assassination attempt on the Somali president (that killed 8), a suicide attack on a police station in Istanbul … and various other attacks.

That religion story — about the coordinated attack and other attacks — will be much more difficult to report and figure out, particularly from reporters who sit stateside, but it’s unarguably a much more important story that deserves far more coverage. Also, I would certainly hope that the media would be much more interested in figuring out the security breaches that took place in Egypt and Libya than with writing more words on Terry Jones or mysterious filmmakers. Media tend to have narrative frameworks they adopt and report stories to fit that narrative. It can be a dangerous approach.

In this frightening analysis of what happened in Cairo — which suggests the “movie” is pretext at best and that the crowds may have been sent to the embassy as part of a Salafi power play against the Muslim Brotherhood — Middle East expert Lee Smith adds:

The importance [the movie and Jones' putative involvement] been given in press reports is a telltale sign that the American media are more eager to find fault with fringe American provocateurs than Islamist extremists and killers. The reality is that violent demonstrations in the Muslim world against Western insensitivity to Muslim feelings are rarely held for the reasons publicly stated. More often than not, they’re about political leverage, not civilizational conflict.

But back to the coverage of the video, which was … extensive. Super extremely extensive. I want to highlight a few of the better pieces. On The Media thoroughly analyzed how the “movie” (if it can be called that) seemed to dub in every single reference to religion during post-production. Multiple outlets interviewed people who were in the film and their reports confirm that the offending lines were added in post production. CNN has a great story on that. As for the identity of “Sam Bacile,” who had claimed various identities and was involved with the film, many reporters exposed flaws in his story. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic reported that Bacile’s claim to be an Israeli Jew was strenuously disputed.

Everything about the film and its publication was scrutinized. David Kirkpatrick of the New York Times gave an excellent run-down of the origins of the movie, including, “It is unclear whether a full movie even exists.”

In another part of the Times site, a blogger explained a Coptic angle:

One of the reasons that the anti-Islam film trailer so enraged conservative Muslims in Egypt was that reports in the Egyptian media suggested that it was the work of Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian ally of Terry Jones, the Florida pastor known for Koran-burning. So far, however, all that is known for certain is that Mr. Sadek played a small role in publicizing the video, by passing on a link to the English-language trailer in a rambling blog post, an e-mail and a message to his Twitter followers, who numbered less than 80 as of this morning. Mainstream Copts have denounced him as a fringe figure who does not represent their community.

For a sense of how marginal a figure he appears to be, see this video of Mr. Sadek, wearing a cowboy hat and brandishing a cross, a Bible and an American flag during an anti-Islam protest outside the National Press Club in Washington on Sept. 10, 2010. The clip shows Mr. Sadek and five or six other protesters denouncing President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and chanting: “Muslims burn our Bible in Egypt!”

That same blogger explained that ignorance of the United States’ expansive protections for speech and religious expression played a role in a small protest in Tunisia.

By the end of the day, the Associated Press, which had multiple reports on the filmmaker, seemed to have figured out the mystery. And it was a really good and totally weird mystery.

So good work, Godbeat folks. Of course, the fact that the movie played either no role or the role of pretext in the 9/11 attacks means that this may have been over-covered a tad. OK, way over-covered. I hope we see even a fraction of the same enthusiasm for uncovering every detail of how the attack in Libya happened — a major victory for whoever did it — and what is going on in the streets of Egypt, Tunisia and, now, Yemen, as we do Terry Jones and Nakoula Nakoula.

Forest video image via Shutterstock.

  • Ben

    “The importance [the movie and Jones' putative involvement] been given in press reports is a telltale sign that the American media are more eager to find fault with fringe American provocateurs than Islamist extremists and killers.”

    Oh, please. There are few journos in Libya and Washington officials themselves were still scrambling to figure out what happened. And there’s no shortage of US press coverage on Islamist extremists on any given day in the foreign pages.
    The film was a valid story if for no other reason than the events that happened in Egypt, which in many ways are more important than Libya given Morsi’s non-reaction to them and the protests that are spreading. And to be clear, covering the film in no way passes judgment that the reaction to it was justified.

    • mollie

      It’s understandable to cover the video. It did, after all, serve some sort of pretext for coordinated organized protests. But if the pretext is being covered more than the real reasons for the protest — and there’s no doubt that it is far more covered than that — it’s a concern.
      My own thinking is that a big reason why the video received wall-to-wall coverage (and continues to) is because it’s so darned easier to research things happening in America than having reporters on the ground who understand the complex dynamics at play elsewhere.

      • Ben

        Might have been a pretext in Libya, it also might have been a real protest that got used as subterfuge by another group. But Egypt was a real protest over the film — and, yes, frustrations with the US, sure. But let’s not discount the anger over local descriptions of the film, religious offense, lack of understanding of US notions of freedom of speech, etc. That’s not just all pretext.

        • mollie

          Ben,
          Yes, it appears Salafists and others whipped up populist anger about the film to support their thoroughly planned protests. USA Today has a good story on this (http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/story/2012/09/12/libyan-officials-us-ambassador-killed-in-attack/57752828/1):

          The spokesman for the Egyptian Salafist Noor party called on people to go to the embassy when the offensive video surfaced; he also called on non-Islamist soccer hooligans, known as Ultras, to join the protest; Mohamed al Zawahiri, the brother of the al-Qaeda leader, tweeted tht people should go to the embassy & “defend the prophet,” etc., etc.

          • Ben

            yes, political & religious elements — politicians whipping up, but crowds wouldn’t respond if it weren’t for their religious beliefs. anyway, I think we agree? It does strike me that a lot of the comments on geoconger’s article yesterday were wanting more info about the film, and beyond that, exploring artifacts of religious import like the film would seem to be something GR likes to encourage.

        • http://none.com mr burns

          and that would be because so many Eygyptians spend their time searching Youtube for obscure english language (which most cant understand) movie trailers ?

  • FWKen

    Except that there is some information that the rioting was a response to taking out a high AQ leader. And that the thing was planned before the movie was an issue. That didn’t stop Nightlife from focusing on the movie and Terry Jones last night, but the movie has been around for months. The AQ killing was months ago as well. So our brilliant media are settling on the most salacious angles and downplaying alternatives. Some are addressing the most noticeable aspect of the story: the date.

    As disgusted as I am at the reporting, it’s interesting to watch the story as it is developing. The best coverage seems to stay open to alternatives as new facts come in.

    • mollie

      I always try to cut some slack when news breaks like this. It’s just so hard to have perspective about which angles are most important and, as I noted, false information gets spread quickly and it’s hard to combat.

  • spudnik

    Call me cynical, but I think that much of the media coverage’s focus on the movie, its maker and Romney’s comment was to distract viewers from how eerily similar the embassy photos were to Iran in 1979.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    NPR which has had some of the best continuing boots-on-the-ground coverage of Libya since the Arab Spring began, has had some interesting reports on the embassy attack. Yesterday their reporter these was saying that blatantly false reports about the video were being passed via Twitter and Facebook prior to the attack, alleging that the movie was widely shown in American theaters as part of the observance of Sept 11. (And for those of you who haven’t seen the trailer, it’s downright pornographic; guaranteed to offend any Muslim and most Christians that I know).
    This morning the reporter was elaborating on reports that it was a pre-planned attack. Although I missed the start of her report, the gist seemed to be that although fairly sophisticated weapons (rocket-propelled grenades etc) were used in the attack, the city is full of competing militias whose members have ready access to such things. So while the attack may have been pre-planned by professional terrorists its also possible that angry amateurs who just happened to have a shed full of RPGs were engaging in freelance anger.
    I suspect it will take some sophisticated intelligence analysis to get to the bottom of this.
    The thing that has surprised me is that NO report I’ve seen has discussed the pornographic scenes in the trailer. Call me old-fashioned, but that would seem to put a lie to any claim by its makers or promoters to be Christian. The only possible reason I can envision for someone to make a film like that is to inflame Muslims. For those of you who are old enough to recall Christian protests in this country over “The Last Temptation of Christ,” it makes that movie look like “Ben-Hur” by comparison. It’s so far removed from genuine religious critique that I think the ambassador’s widow could sue those involved with it for deliberate incitement and be able to overcome First Amendment objections.)

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    This was a preplanned attack…Carolyn Glick reports that the long trailer from the film was shown on Salafist TV in Egypt to stir up crowds to support the Salafist attack on the government.
    In the Libyan attack, Glick points out that the locals “knew” the Ambassador was visiting Benghazi, (where, by the way, the “consulate” was unarmed and even lacked bullet proof windows).

    And Wired reports that the consulate worker who was later killed managed to get out the news to his game playing friends that a planned attack was coming, because the local “police” guard was taking cellphone photos of the office. Two hours later, the attack occurred. One wonders if the State Department was aware of the impending attack, or if they didn’t care to respond to the warning of an impending attack…

    There is more than “religion” behind the attacks: one would like to know if the Libyan attackers were Arab or Tuareg, or from Ghadaffy’s tribe, the Warfalla, who wanted revenge against the Ambassador, who was backed the rebels in Libya, or led by “foreigners”, aka AlQaeda who are often Saudis…check this article on Mali about the tribal differences, which exist once you get south of the Mediterranean coast (and the fact that 200 thousand Christians fled from the area. Who are these Christians?)

  • FWKen

    I’ve been watching all day, flipping between CNN and Fox. On brother did I see this:

    http://m.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2012/09/does-not-represent-us-moving-photos-pro-american-rallies-libya/56803/

    Make off that what you will.

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    There seems to be a desire in some quarters to deep-six any memory of how much insulting flack Catholics and other Christians took from large quarters of the mainstream media for strongly (non-violently) objecting to their tax money being used to finance artists(?)to create works of so-called art wherein Christ was dipped in urine and Our Blessed Mother daubed in dung.
    To hear some of the same mainstream media and government officials talk about how America reveres and respects all religions and condemns ridiculing any is, in part, a crock.
    Finally, today I caught two Fox commentators mentioning the media hypocrisy floating around on this issue but have yet to catch MSNBC or CNN bring up the different way the media treats Christians on such issues. (Never-ending lectures on the sanctity of artistic freedom–even unto using other people’s
    tax money.)

  • Harris

    Several things come to mind: first, the Washington Post had a rather thorough discussion of events within the consulate, as well as covering some of the internal Libyan political dynamics.

    Second, the religious story that has yet to be fully developed is that of the Coptic diaspora. Here, Amy Sullivan at The New Republic highlighted the possible blowback in Egypt because of the Coptic connection in the United States. In any case, who are the Copts and why do they matter needs more attention.

    And third, the media reaction to the film suggests the presence of a more significant public relations problem for the evangelical community. The media narrative flourishes in part because of the audience and its existing conclusions: “crazy inept Muslim-baiting movie? Sounds like them Evangelicals.” On the religion beat that raises again the question of how one covers the fringe. Are the participants responding out of a real connection to faith, or is this a matter of an eccentric few? Ugly as this is, it does seem we will need to turn over a few rocks.

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  • Deacon Jim Stagg

    Tonight, 9-14-2012, on NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams and Andrea Mitchell still indict “the film” for causing the riots and killing. Is this a concentrated effort to protect the foreign policy of our current administration?

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  • frozenglass

    All the discussion misses the point that the call to attack in Egypt was posted on August 30th, before the release of the video. So good excuse, is it not?

  • Moneyrunner

    Once a convenient narrative is established by the MSM, it takes on a life of its own. They quote each other. The narrative here is that the US is ultimately responsible because we harbor fundamentalist Christian nuts who hate Arabs, blacks, Jews, homosexuals and women. So of course the film will be the focus of the media. They can’t very well blame the Obama administration foreign policy; he’s their guy.

    If you want another, older, example, there’s “Fast and Furious.” Whenever there is a reference to “Fast and Furious” it’s always described as a “botched” gun tracking operation. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to figure out that there was nothing botched about it. There was no tracking. The weapons were only identified after they had been used to kill people. They were designed to “prove” that the US was a major source of guns used by Mexican crime cartels.

  • P. Aaron

    Anyone remember The Life of Brian or Monty Python & The Holy Grail?


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