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Caveat lector

MAULING THE MUSLIMS! Most likely, Eunice Stone behaved in good faith. Who didn’t? Your cable press corps:


GHEITH GETS IT RIGHT: Ayman Gheith expressed it well on Monday’s night’s Larry King Live. Gheith was one of three Muslim medical students stopped in Florida last Friday morning. Here’s what he told King about the experience:

GHEITH: Well, the thing that hurts me the most, after we were let go, OK, after everything was said and done…what hurt me the most was that the argument was whether they said it as a hoax or whether they said it meaningfully. Where nobody considered, even, that we didn’t even say it. I mean, it wasn’t—throughout the media, throughout—everybody. It was a given thing that we had already said it.
Exactly. What actually happened at that Shoney’s in Georgia? We don’t know, and you don’t know either, although the evidence now suggests that a misunderstanding most likely occurred. But Ayman Gheith hit the nail on the head in his description of the press corps’ performance. Almost uniformly, the cable press corps simply assumed that Gheith and his colleagues had behaved inappropriately. Plainly, the pundits didn’t know what had actually occurred. So they told you the story they liked (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/16/02).

Had Gheith and his friends staged a “hoax,” “prank” or “joke?” Connie Chung’s producers didn’t know. Brian Williams didn’t know. The heinous Sean Hannity didn’t know. John Zarrella didn’t know. But all over cable, pundits simply assumed that the students had engaged in some sort of misconduct. And the fact that this story was so plainly racial makes their conduct that much more disgraceful.

A few weeks ago, the NEA linked to an essay by Professor Brian Lippincott. The essay advised teaching children not to blame entire groups for the conduct of a few. Major pundits sat silently by as the NEA was slimed for this bit of advice.

Now we see that the NEA made a mistake after all. Instead of aiming the lesson at children, they should have aimed at our national press corps. Many pundits were eager to slime three members of the latest despised group. Maybe it’s time to leave our children alone, and go where the help is most needed.

OLDIES BUT GOODIES: By the weekend, many broadcasters had enough sense to stop discussing the Shoney’s matter. Then there was flyweight Soledad O’Brien, hosting the Saturday Today show. By the time O’Brien went on the air, the three med students had long since denied making inappropriate comments. It was perfectly clear that no one knew just what had happened at Shoney’s. But why should this slow Soledad down? She opened with an unfounded assumption. Then she showcased her astounding bad judgment:

O’BRIEN: Now to the apparent terror hoax in South Florida that shut down a major interstate on Friday. Three men were stopped, but no evidence of a terror plot was ever found. Altaf Ali is executive director of the Council of Islamic Relations in Florida. Mr. Ali, good morning. Thanks for joining us.
To O’Brien—who didn’t know what had occurred—it was still an “apparent terror hoax.” Incredibly, O’Brien showcased some bogus facts as she played rope-a-dope with Ali:
O’BRIEN: According to authorities, the three men, once pulled over, were not cooperative. They did not consent to a search. There was some confusion about the presence of explosives in the car found by police dogs which signaled that presence. And then there was some confusion over license plates. Do the students tell you that they were cooperative, or do they say, as authorities say, they actually would not, at first, consent to a search?
By the time she spoke, it had long been known that the license plates were completely legitimate. It had long been known that there were no explosives. But O’Brien bruited these bogus facts—and she never abandoned her dry sense of humor. “Altaf Ali, I thank you for joining us to try to help clear some of this up,” she said.

O’Brien was hapless, but others competed. Here was Fox’s Rita Cosby, still speculating on Saturday night:

COSBY (9/14/02): In other terror news, it turns out the three men detained yesterday in Florida may have been playing a sick joke on the woman, Eunice Stone, who overheard their conversations and turned them into the FBI because she thought they were terrorists. Orlando Salinas has been following this disturbing story.
Cosby had no idea if the men played a joke, but she led with the damaging supposition. Incredibly, Cosby was still citing “the apparent terror hoax” on her ten o’clock show Sunday night.

Others performed extremely poorly. But no one equaled the utter nonsense found on CNN’s Sunday Morning. Catherine Callaway was forced to interview Philly talk host Michael Smerconish. When the cable nets want it really dumb, they now bring in radio screamers:

CALLAWAY: This situation that developed in Florida has raised so many questions. Of course, we have the three men that were held and questioned for a long period of time over possibly carrying explosives. Reportedly they made some comments in a Shoney’s restaurant. What now? Should charges, any type of charge be filed against these three Muslim-American medical students? And let’s start with you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: I think that the answer is yes. I watched that Georgia woman on television and I found her account to be entirely credible. I suspect what happened here, Catherine, is that they were sitting in Shoney’s and maybe she was giving them what we call the hairy eyeball and they thought they would have some fun with her by talking about September 11 and September 13. What bad judgment! And they want to be doctors—are you kidding me? Absolutely—file charges against them.

Smerconish—with no way to know what had really occurred—told us what he “suspected,” what had “maybe” occurred, and said the men should be criminally charged.

People that stupid make excellent money exciting the cattle in radio markets. But is there any reason—any reason on earth—why CNN has to loan them its hall?

LET’S PRETEND: How hapless are the nation’s broadcasters? On Monday afternoon, Miles O’Brien guest hosted on Wolf Blitzer Reports; he interviewed James Zogby, of the Arab-American Institute. And long, long after the medical students denied making any inappropriate comments, here’s the way the hapless O’Brien framed this delicate matter:

O’BRIEN: Good to have you with us, Dr. Zogby. All right, give us a sense—let’s assume for the moment that these students were just having a joke, and to call it a joke is being charitable to it. It’s not funny, of course. It’s kind of a sick prank. Does that change the way you view it in any way, the response to it?
Incredible, isn’t it? O’Brien didn’t have the slightest idea what had really occurred. So what did he do? He asked Zogby to “assume” that the men had misbehaved, then asked if that would change his outlook! Does anyone but our highly paid “newsmen” ever say things so absurd?

BRIAN’S SONG: Wherever it is that they find these people, Brian Williams was discovered there too. Last Friday night, Williams trashed the medical students, assuming that they had engaged in misconduct and focussing on their troubling skin tone (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/16/02). Three nights later, on Monday night, Williams did a commentary on the situation. But even now, he refused to mention the basic fact that the men had denied any jokes or wrongdoing. Instead, he quoted an unnamed “Muslim leader” who implied that the men had been joking:

WILLIAMS (9/16/02): Finally tonight, the attempt today and over the weekend to draw a tie between vigilance and vigilantism. The woman in the Shoney’s Restaurant in the South who thought she overheard men joking about an attack on the United States on 9/13 was hospitalized today with chest pains her doctor says were brought on by stress over what she touched off late last week. To recap here, the main east-west artery across northern Florida was in effect shut down for much of Friday, and a massive manhunt swept up three Muslim medical students who have since been released. There were complaints that it was profiling. One Muslim leader said, quote, “There’s a problem when you basically deputize everyone in America.” Yet another Muslim leader said, quote, “Muslim Americans can’t even talk and joke in a restaurant,” close quote.

That last point is probably right to some degree. Humor has been a casualty of all of this. Some jokes just don’t work anymore. Just try making a bomb joke while in line to board a commercial flight let alone while on board a commercial flight. One person in law enforcement cast aside any concerns over political correctness and, in praising this woman in Shoney’s, said, “We know who carried out the September 11th attacks.” America is still trying to feel its way and trying to have it both ways. The sensitive society that we had become by September 10th, 2001 may not work post-September 11th. A Georgia woman wants everyone to know her heart was in the right place, an unfortunate piece of post-September 11th fallout just might be that Americans might have to watch their mouths a little more closely these days.

Even now, Williams kept telling the story he liked. Three nights after he slimed the three men, he kept implying that the men told a joke. He never mentioned at any time that the men had denied jokes or hoaxes.

HEY PAULA: How completely incompetent are your millionaire “journalists?” Incredibly, here is CNN’s Paula Zahn, speaking on Tuesday morning:

ZAHN (9/17/02): Three medical students at center of that terror scare in South Florida last Friday say they want to reclaim their dignity. They were stopped along Alligator Alley, Interstate 75 in South Florida after a waitress in North—in Georgia, that is, told police she thought she overheard the men planning to bring something down. No charges have been brought against the trio, but as a result, the hospital where they were going to intern asked them not to come after all.
How many millions did CNN pay to lure Zahn over from Fox News Channel? Incredibly, four days after the story began, Zahn still thought that Eunice Stone had been a waitress at Shoney’s.

IN CONCLUSION: For the record, Stone backed down a bit last night, saying (on the Donahue show) that she had only heard “tidbits” of the men’s conversation. It now seems likely than a misunderstanding occurred at the ill-fated Shoney’s. Stone most likely behaved in good faith. But most likely, the medical students didn’t make the comments she thought she had overheard.

But who behaved in very bad faith? Who else—your cable press corps! Indeed, let’s extend all praise to Zogby for his comments when he spoke with O’Brien. “The problem here is not the woman. The problem is you,” he boldly said. “CNN covered this thing live as did others and the problem therefore is that it fed the hysteria.”

Poor O’Brien knew what to do; he began to pin the blame on others. “I think you probably should point the finger at law enforcement first,” he said.

Indeed, there are indications that law enforcement may have misbehaved in this too. But don’t expect to find CNN exploring that part of this story. The corps’ preferred tale was perfectly clear: Frightening Muslim Men Do Wrong. But did law enforcement perhaps do wrong? Did they invent the tale of the unpaid toll, for example? We’re prepared to be surprised, but we don’t expect our cable “newsmen” to show a high level of interest.