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Monday, October 17, 2005

MEMO TO WSJ's HAGAN, CHITTUM: Did You Really Think Michelle or the Blogosphere Would Just Sit There and Take it?

Remember The Wall Street Journal's story on the OU "Suicide Bomber" last week by Joe Hagan and Ryan Chittum? Well, there is quite a back story to it and Michelle Malkin has it, plus much, much more about the anti-blog attitudes seriously fogging up some quarters of the MSM.

I have to confess, I was so happy that somebody in the MSM was finally paying attention to the OU story that I suspended disbelief when I read what Hagan and Chittum wrote. I should have realized the whitewash was on big time when I read the sentence "none of these claims are true."

As it happened, the claims in the immediately preceding paragraph were as yet unproven one way or the other, but those in the next two paragraphs above were absolutely established and it didn't help that Hagan and Chittum minimized their significance by saying they "fed the speculation."

What amazes me about the WSJ story is its uncritical acceptance of the official explanation, even in the face of obvious factual problems. I didn't know it when Hagan interviewed me, but we have since learned from the Friday CNN segment that the FBI hasn't even followed its own policy on when an explosion would be considered a terrorist act and when an official explanation would be offered to the public.

Anyway, Michelle literally shreds the way Hagan and Chittum put together a story that seemed clearly intended once published to discredit the Blogosphere as a legitimate news-gathering media, regardless of the facts about the OU bomber incident or what bloggers have said about it.

Consider this graph from Michelle's post describing her conversation with Hagan:

"Several times, Hagan asked leading questions about the blogosphere's 'conspiracy theories' regarding Joel Hinrichs. Several times, I stated clearly that I did not subscribe to any conspiracy theories - and that most of the blogs covering the story didn't either.

"I explained that unlike the MSM, most of the blogs I have linked to were simply trying to find out the truth about the strange incident - and that meant keeping open the possibility that Hinrichs meant to commit murder and that he may have been swayed by extremist Islamic views."

Michelle's description rings true with me, based on my experience with Hagan. I have made it a point repeatedly to stress that a terrorist link or association of some kind seems to be the most reasonable explanation for Joel Hinrichs' death. When Hagan used the word "conspiracy," I specifically rejected it because of its loaded connotations.

Indeed, when Hagan asked me if I thought the MSM had "evil or somehow ulterior motives" for not covering the OU bomber story, I stressed that, being a newspaper journalist myself, "I understand we all have 99 stories we could be covering and this one is complicated, so a lot of folks will go on to do the easier stories."

Michelle also points to a fact that should have been disclosed by The Journal and evidence of precisely the elitist arrogance that is at the root of the MSM's continuing decline in circulation, credibility and future prospects:

"I spoke with Chittum (an OU graduate, as it turns out) by phone this morning. He blamed inclusion of the word 'apparent' on his editors and maintained that the reports were unequivocally false - according to his sources, whom he would not name.

"I asked Chittum whether it would have been more accurate to write 'None of these claims are true, according to Journal sources.' He said it was not necessary to add such a qualifier because he believed his sources."

I wonder if The Journal copy desk knew Chittum was an OU graduate and was therefore possibly laboring under a hidden conflict of interest? I also thought "trust me, I know my sources" journalism went out the door with Jayson Blair.

Read Michelle's entire post. After shredding Hagan and Chittum, she lists half a dozen of the most stellar examples of top-notch reporting by bloggers on major national and other significant stories in recent months.

Michelle also spoke in a very complimentary way about my reporting on the OU story, for which I am most appreciative. Those posts have moved a long way down the page, so here are some links to the most important ones: here, here, here, here and here. Other bloggers have also done excellent work and Michelle has links to them, too.

UPDATE:

The Counter-Terrorism Blog does a point-by-point refutation of Hagan and Chittum. This blog is well-worth blogrolling and adding to your regular reading list because it is written by a group of counter-terrorism experts with no particular axes to grind.

And Powerline's John Hinderacker goes through his interesting email traffic with Chittum. The Hagan/Chittum knowledge claims exceed those of the FBI's public statements but in response to Hinderacker's request Chittum explains the sourcing on the issue of whether Hinrichs attempted to enter the stadium.

Chittum's sourcing explanation seems sound enough, but in my judgement the stadium entry issue has always been a collateral concern at best, given the balance of proximity, amount of bomb-making materials found in the apartment, the attempt to buy ammonium nitrate and the FBI's conflicting statements to Hinrichs' father on the suicide message.

See especially Hinderacker's reminder to Chittum:

"My main point, though, was that there is a middle ground between 'depressed student bent on suicide, but not a terrorist attack' and 'member of a terrorist group.' The FBI has only said that there is no indication Hinrichs was affiliated with such a group. I have no reason to dispute that, but other evidence, referred to in your article, strongly suggests that he did intend a terrorist attack."

Let me reiterate as well that from the beginning I have said the most reasonable explanation - not the only explanation - of the evidence gathered to date seems to be "some kind of terrorist link." And I've sought to be clear that my basic view is that the evidence available to date makes the official explanation difficult to accept, at best.

In addition, I've specifically not used the word "conspiracy" and have also noted a third possible explanation, that of Hinrichs as the involuntary victim. I made these same points to Hagan and I have to give him credit for quoting me accurately on that point. Indeed, from a 30 minute conversation, that was the only thing on which Hagan quoted me.

In other words, however one judges the work of other bloggers, I've tried in my own reporting on the OU "suicide bomber" to apply the same standards of analytical caution and restraint that I've practiced as a mainstream media reporter and required of reporters working for me as their editor in several newsrooms.

One more point: Perhaps I've not been sufficiently clear of my meaning in citing Hinrichs' "proximity" to the stadium as one of the key facts. It is not merely that he was within 100 yards of a stadium contaning 84,000 people.

The proximity issue is also key because the bench where Hinrichs died was within a few feet of a number of buses and in an area that at half-time and after the game would have been quite crowded. It is not unreasonable to wonder if he intended to attempt to get on or in line to get on a bus for the attack.

HT: Michelle