Saturday, November 14, 2015

Mystery Terrorists

There was a spate of pretty nasty terrorist attacks yesterday in Paris.  

I found myself glued to CNN for much of the evening, and by the time I turned off the television, at 10 p.m., it seemed pretty likely that the bad actors were Islamic terrorists, most likely members of the Islamic State.

My major daily newspaper probably went to press a couple hours later, around midnight.  But when the New York Times arrived this morning, its reportage pretty much covered the "what-when-where-how" of the story.  What was missing were the other elements:  Who and Why.*

The lead story went on for seven paragraphs about a series of "terrorist attacks" in Paris.  

Then the eight graf gave some context, mentioning the "Charlie Hebdo and related assaults around the French capital by militant extremists less than a year ago."

Next up was an explanation that the Hebdo incidents "traumatized France and other countries in Europe, elevating fears of religious extremism and violent Jihadists who have been radicalized by the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa."

So here we are, nine paragraphs into a huge news story about major terrorism without without using the words "Islam" or "Islamic State," not even mentioning them as possibly the terrorists.

After the jump to page 8, in paragraph 14, the story finally choked out the I-word:

     "There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Twitter erupted with
     celebratory messages by members and sympathizers of the Islamic State,
     the extremist group in Syria and Iraq that is under assault by major powers,
     by major powers, including the United States, France and Russia."

The next paragraph, the 15th, discusses one attack in a theater and notes that "the American band, Eagles of Death Metal was among those playing."

When a story about mass terrorist attacks doesn't mention Islam or the Islamic State until the 14th paragraph -- and then in the 15th names an American band but does not say that witnesses heard terrorists in the theater yelling "Allahu Akbar" --  well, it just makes you wonder. 

Did the Times want to hedge its reportage in case the terrorists turned out to be radical Catholics or unhappy Hindus?

(I do think the name of the band is unfortunate by the way, particularly here.)

Sidebar Pieces

The Times front page included two other accompanying reports.

One story concentrated on the concert hall attack.  

To its credit, this story mentioned the "Allahu Akbar" shouts early on, in its second paragraph.  But it mentioned "the American group Eagles of Death Metal" in the first paragraph.  

The middle of the story mentioned two other clues: 1) the gunmen/bombers were clad all in black, and 2) the attackers said the attack was for French actions in Syria.  No mention of Islamic groups or Islam.  Apparently Times writers don't want to get ahead of themselves on a big story.

The third Times story dilates on scenes of horror in the city for five paragraphs, then recalls the Hebdo attack in the sixth.  

The seventh paragraph starts this way: "The attackers' names, or whether they are linked to radical Islamic groups, are not yet known,"  It too refers to the "Allahu Akbar" shout.

Then, in the next paragraph, the the article takes out after a French politician.  "France was already in a foul temper, with . . . far-right politicians stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, especially Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front. Ms. Le Pen has mocked Mr. Hollande as weak and stirred French nationalism by vowing to close borders.  With regional elections scheduled for Dec. 16, Ms. Le Pen seems certain to keep rising in the polls."

I am no admirer of Le Pens, pere or fille, but this is ridiculous.  Before our paper of record will concede that major terrorist attacks almost certainly are the work of Islamic extremists, it veers off into the quintessential American journalism meme of discussing the effect on politicians' poll rankings.


Long story short, the New York Times devoted more space to French politics than speculating on the likely perpetrators of six or seven terrorist attacks in Paris.  

It mentioned an Islamic slogan twice, the same number of times it mentioned the name of an American band.  It referred once to gunmen clad in black and once to a terrorist's shout that his group was angry over French military action in Syria.

One thing that people really want to know when unexpected violence kills more than 100 people in a major city is this -- who was responsible. 

What the Times gave us were three tantalizing hints and a lot of "we can't be sure at this point."

Several hours before the Times went to press, television news reports had discussed the Islamic angle, the Islamic State angle, and also the efforts underway to get to the bottom of who planned the attacks and why.

In journalism generally, television people are regarded by print people as fluffy heads who are handed copy to read and prompted through earpieces about what questions to ask interview subjects.

Last night, TV's talking heads ran circles around the New York Times.

Maybe in the Sunday edition, the New York paper will venture to speculate on the answers to the big questions it avoided so delicately this morning -- who and why.

*George Orwell, before he turned to criticism and novels, started his career as a journalist.  It was he who boiled down the essence of reporting to "five Ws and an H."  This means answering these questions:  Who, what when, where, why and how. 

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