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A Rush to Misjudgment: CNN Faulted for Racially Charged, Erroneous Reports on Boston Marathon Case

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CNN is coming under criticism after it falsely reported authorities had arrested a Boston Marathon bombing suspect, whom it had earlier described as a “dark-skinned male.” Both claims turned out to be wrong. Earlier in the week the New York Post claimed a Saudi man was in custody for the blasts, only to later see authorities later say the man was a victim of the marathon attack. We discuss the corporate media’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing with two guests: Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Peter Hart, activism director at the media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, federal authorities have reported the first major break in the search for suspects behind the Boston Marathon bombing, saying they now have security videos of one or two people they believe may have planted the explosives. An image has reportedly been captured of at least one suspect carrying—and perhaps dropping—a black bag at the site of the second bombing along the marathon route. The videos also show a number of people whom authorities want to question.

Confusion reigned Wednesday, however, when CNN, the Associated Press and other news outlets mistakenly reported the FBI had actually made an arrest of the suspect seen in the video. During an interview on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s John King first described the suspect as a, quote, “dark-skinned male.”

JOHN KING: But now that I’m told that they—I was told that they had a breakthrough in identification of a suspect. And I’m told—I want to be careful about this, because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male. The official used some other words. I’m not going to repeat them until we get more information. Because of the sensitivities, there are some people who will take offense even at saying that. And I understand that. I’m just saying, this was relayed to me by a reputable law enforcement source, a source who had been briefed on the investigation, I could say—I should say, that the suspect was a dark-skinned male. And that’s the information that comes from the police. I know there are people out there—


WOLF BLITZER: And we can’t say whether the person spoke with a foreign accent or an American accent—



WOLF BLITZER: —or anything like that. That would be premature.

JOHN KING: And again, this source did use further language to characterize, and I’m just—as a reporter who’s been through a lot of these, who knows that sometimes the information you get does not in the end turn out to be what happens in the end, I’m making a personal judgment, forgive me, but I think it’s the right judgment, not to try to inflame tensions—


JOHN KING: —and to just say the law enforcement source was very clear that, again, they’ve enhanced this video, they have a close-up look at this individual they have on video, they say, dropping a package, making a placement that they believe to be the explosive device, and they say it is a dark-skinned male. I’m going to stop there and not go further.

AMY GOODMAN: That is John King and Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Meanwhile, the New York Post has come under criticism for falsely reporting the police took a 20-year-old Saudi national injured in the blast into custody. The Post claimed the man smelled like gunpowder. The police did question the man and even searched his house but reportedly found nothing to connect him to the bombings. And he is in the hospital, injured like so many others.

We’re joined right now by two guests. In Washington, D.C., Nihad Awad is with us, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. And here in New York, Peter Hart, activism director at the media watch group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR.

Peter Hart, just go through how the media is covering this.

PETER HART: Well, I think we’ve seen a very familiar rush to misjudgment in a lot of areas, from the first—the very beginning, the Saudi national. Why was he turned into a suspect from a victim status? Part of it was this right-wing “terrorism expert,” Steven Emerson, goes on C-SPAN the next morning, the day after the blasts, and says, “I searched his Facebook page, and I saw anti-American friends in his timeline, and so we contacted the authorities.”

We’ve seen reporting and commentary that talked about the Muslim or jihadist character of the bombs themselves: pressure cookers, ball bearings or nails used. These are things that are not unique to al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda-inspired terror attacks. We saw—we saw references to the Times Square bombing, trying to put this in the context of Islamic terror or previous instances of what the media like to refer to as Islamic terror. We even saw references to the fact that two bombs were there: It must have been a follow-up attack trying to hit the rescue workers when they show up—again, a Middle Eastern trait, we’re told. This is actually what the United States government has done in places like Iraq and in drone strikes in Pakistan.

So we have seen this rush to characterize this bombing, without necessarily saying precisely that we know who the perpetrators are, but to put it in this context. And I think that creates a climate of fear and suspicion, particularly directed toward certain communities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you mentioned Steve Emerson, the—identified often as a terrorism expert. But he’s played this role before. He did the same thing in the Oklahoma City bombing, and yet somehow some media don’t raise questions about whether he should even be interviewed on these kinds of things.

PETER HART: There’s no price for him being wrong. And his work has been criticized for being Islamophobic since before Oklahoma City.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the self-identified “terrorism expert” Steve Emerson appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, appeared to claim responsibility for the investigation of the Saudi national. This is a clip.

STEVEN EMERSON: Terrorism is defined as the use of political violence against civilians for political purposes. Now, it could be just an anarchist. I mean, we’re not 100 percent sure it’s terrorism, but we’re pretty 99 percent sure it is. Number two, given what they have found so far—and I’m not going to go into it because I’ve been given privy to certain classified information—it appears that it was a political act of terrorism done for political reasons. Yes, there has been no person arrested. There have been people interrogated. There have been raids, not just on one house, but on several houses. And on the Facebook page of the person of interest, there were interesting entries that showed an animus toward the United States. Again, he has not been convicted, but the burns on his skin match the explosive residue of the bomb that exploded.

GRETA BRAWNER: Is this the Saudi national, or are those two different people?

STEVEN EMERSON: The Saudi national.

GRETA BRAWNER: Well, since you found that information, and it was public on a Facebook page, what sort of things were this—was this person of interest writing on the Facebook page that made you and the FBI concerned?

STEVEN EMERSON: Well, first of all, we did not get to the internal Facebook page, because you would have to get his permission. OK? We called the number, and we only got voicemail. Number two, there were pictures, lots of pictures of his friends. Some of them showed anti-American animus, such as support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Again, I want to be very clear here, that, you know, again, a person of interest—he could have just been an innocent bystander. But again, he definitely is a person of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: That was self-identified terrorism expert Steve Emerson on C-SPAN. Hours following the explosion near the finish line at the Boston Marathon, conservative columnist Erik Rush tweeted—then deleted—what he claimed was a joke about rounding up Saudis and killing them. He tweeted, quote, “Everybody do the National Security Ankle Grab! Let’s bring more Saudis in without screening them! C’mon!” To which someone replied, quote, “Sweet God. Are you ALREADY BLAMING MUSLIMS??” Erik Rush then tweeted back, “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.” Let’s go to Nihad Awad in Washington, D.C. He is the national executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations. Your response?

NIHAD AWAD: Well, it is very unfortunate that Fox News would allow a commentator to still be engaged with them. So we issued an action alert. We asked the public to contact Fox News and to drop this commentator, who basically is calling for religious genocide against Muslims, without knowing the evidence against the Muslim community or members of the Muslim community. So, unfortunately, politically driven commentators and self-styled experts on terrorism, like Steven Emerson, who has a career just in blaming American Muslims and targeting them, continue to have attention and continue to be hosted by major networks with total disregard to the sensitivities and to the facts themselves. So, I know that thousands of people contacted Fox News to ask them to drop this commentator, but I wonder how many more are needed until Fox News pays attention to its credibility, which is really on the line.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Peter Hart, I’d like to ask you—you have two things here. You have the existing biases that already exist, consciously or subconsciously, in the media, but then you have now, because of the Internet now, this enormous pressure on news organizations to be the first to report something, any break on a major story. And the combination of these things, what it’s doing to accurate reporting that the public is receiving?

PETER HART: Well, I think there’s this tendency in broadcast, particularly in television, to be the first outlet to report something that is going to be public in a matter of minutes, hours, anyway. Television outlets take great pride in declaring the winner of an election five seconds before their competitors. So I think there’s this built-in kind of absurd competition.

I think more important in this case is the history that we draw on. We read headlines, you know, block letters across the front page of the USA Today, the day afterwards, “Terror Has Returned,” this idea that the United States has not seen a terrorist attack since 9/11, this is a unique event right now. And we’re forgetting a series of attacks committed by domestic right-wing extremists—the Sikh temple massacre; we’re talking about the guy who went to a Unitarian church in Tennessee, killed two people, was inspired by a right-wing author; several acts that seem to be connected to the rhetoric of Glenn Beck. These things are flushed down the memory hole. We don’t even recall clearly enough who the actual culprit was in Atlanta, in the Atlanta bombing. People remember Richard Jewell, they remember the rush to consider him a suspect; they forget that Eric Rudolph, a right-wing domestic terrorist, anti-abortion extremist, was the person responsible for this. We forget all of these things, and our mind—in the media, our mind turns to Muslims, to Islamic terrorism, to the Times Square attempted bombing.

AMY GOODMAN: Last night, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart blasted CNN’s misreporting.

CNN: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN KING: Wolf, we have information an arrest has been made in the investigation here in Boston.

WOLF BLITZER: So the suspect that was identified has now been arrested.

JOHN KING: I was told by a Boston law enforcement source, “We got him.”

JON STEWART: Oh, [bleep] I can’t—I can’t—you know, so many people—this is so important. So many people are going to be breathing easier tonight. Give me the details. This is exciting.

JOHN KING: Federal law enforcement source says arrest has been made based on two different videos showing images of the suspect. The video enhancement showed a dark-skinned male placing the package at the second explosion site and backing away.

JON STEWART: Well, that’s tough. Dark-skinned male, that—boy, that’s—wow! I don’t how they narrowed that down. I mean, that could be anyone, from, you know, former Chicago Bull forward and current diplomat Dennis Rodman to bronze god George Hamilton. I mean, he’s—you know, he could still—or maybe Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, if it were Purim. You know, so, boy, that could—that’s a—wow! But, you know, look, man, a tremendous amount of information. And more importantly…

WOLF BLITZER: We’re getting some exclusive information from CNN’s John King. You’re working your sources. You’re getting more information, exclusive reporting. You heard this dramatic exclusive reporting that John has done now.

JON STEWART: You know what? This is why you turn to CNN in a crisis, you know? We make fun of them sometimes. We do. We tell—we tell jokes at their expense. But obviously, because they’ve got the boots on the ground and they can do the reporting, you know, as one of their competitors, I guess we just get a little jealous—of these kinds of exclusives. Although we soon learned there was a very good reason why this was exclusive.

TOM FUENTES: There has been no arrest. And, in fact, a suspect has not been identified by name yet.

JON STEWART: Oh, it’s exclusive because it was completely [bleep] wrong. That’s why it was exclusive.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s comedian Jon Stewart on CNN’s exclusive. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to ask Nihad Awad about another exclusive that even Jon Stewart didn’t catch: the flight that was landed this week because two men on the flight were overheard speaking Arabic?

NIHAD AWAD: It’s very unfortunate that, to some people, speaking Arabic—I speak Arabic—or, speaking any foreign language, in addition to English, is not a sign of crime. And at this heightened, you know, time, people should be sensitive, should be aware, that during this calamity and attacks on America, we should all be united. And this is what’s great about this country. We get to one another; we don’t get at each other. And, you know, being different, being diverse, is what’s beautiful about this country, whether being having a different race, different ethnicities, speaking more than one language. It is not a sign of suspicion or crime.

So, yeah, we see some panic sometimes during this crisis, but it’s also up to the media how they report this. And I would like to see reporters like Wolf Blitzer and John King holding themselves to higher journalistic standards, not to include race and prejudice in their commentary, and just to check the facts, and not do—not to do the work of investigators. Let the investigators finish their work.

And I also have to say that I have been, you know, impressed by the investigators, by the government spokespeople. They have been restrained. They have been setting the tone for the entire nation to wait and see and to judge the facts, not to judge race or assign blame to people, entire communities or ethnicities or religion. I mean, this is wrong. And we should have learned so many lessons from the past.

I think the concerns and the focus should be on the victims and their families, counseling them, making them know that we all are around them, they are in our thoughts, they are in our prayer. And let also the investigators do their job, and wait and see, and not just to have the sense of competition just to fill the air time, just shooting off our mouths just to fulfill, you know, some desires and competitiveness. It is harmful, and it is really un-American.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the FBI released a scathing statement cautioning journalists not to jump to conclusions, saying, quote, “Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting,” they said. That ends this segment. Of course, we’ll continue to cover the news and cover the way the news covers what is happening in the world. Peter Hart, we want to thank you, activism director at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, talking to us from Washington. When we come back, the war on whistleblowers. Stay with us.

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