Piecing together the Hasan puzzle
The debate continues over whether the news media downplayed suggestions that Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood gunman, is an Islamist terrorist. Critics such as columnists David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer had said there was too much focus on whether Hasan was mentally ill, what Brooks called a “rush to therapy.”
As someone who has covered such stories in the past – and I mean trying to tell the public on deadline what happened, not writing with a columnist’s hindsight – I think Brooks, Krauthammer, et al are wrong about this. The details initially available to reporters didn’t establish the story Brooks and Krauthammer wanted to see. But from the first day, the better news organizations have been trying to gather the missing facts, as in this piece in Saturday’s Washington Post on Hasan’s contacts with a radical Muslim cleric.
I remember that on the day of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, I was assigned to do a Sunday story providing a larger context about the threat of terrorism. I was a reporter for New York Newsday. Word had gotten out that authorities had detained an Arab taxi driver from Brooklyn, and I began to shape my story with that in mind. I had to start anew when that turned out to be a false alarm.
In 1997, I covered a shooting in which a deranged Palestinian man fatally shot one person and wounded six others at the Empire State Building. In that case, New York City officials, including Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, went to great lengths to avoid any suggestion of a political motive and portrayed the shooting as a random act of violence that could have happened anywhere. They focused attention on the gunman’s mental instability. This was undermined the next day when it came out that the shooter had a rambling letter in his pocket attacking Zionism, among other things, and asserting that he had chosen the Empire State Building for his attack because he saw it as a symbol of all he opposed. Still, there was no evidence that the gunman had any connection to a terrorist group. The letter spelled out a political motivation for the crime, but also made clear that the gunman was mentally ill.
Reporters will generally follow the law enforcement authorities’ lead on these matters, at least until they have the time to develop information from other sources. The facts available on traumatic events such as these are often scant on the first day or two, especially if the authorities are not forthcoming.
Good journalism is still rooted in finding out and reporting the facts, even in this era of instant opinion. The hair-trigger journalism urged in coverage of the Fort Hood shooter’s motive is the wrong approach. It’s important for journalists to recognize what they don’t know.