Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, media outlets seem
hell-bent on rooting out terrorists -- despite the needed proof
BY ANDREW MITROVICA*
When will it end? When will the media's irresponsible
rush to judgment end? When will reporters and editors in Canada stop relying
on police and intelligence sources to tar the names and reputations of
the innocent? When will common sense, fairness, and, dare I say, a hint
of decency, return to our newsrooms?
I ask these questions because since the events of Sept.
11, 2001, it appears that many journalists -- including those toiling
at tabloids, prime-time newscasts, and sober-thinking major newspapers
-- have all but abandoned the notion of due diligence before splashing
the names and pictures of "suspected terrorists" on their front
pages and our television screens.
Scores of men, women and their families -- mostly Islamic
or of Arabic descent -- have been, in effect, charged, tried and convicted
as "terrorists" by newspapers and television networks thirsting
after a scoop in the media hysteria Sept.11 has spawned.
The disturbing scenes are becoming all too familiar.
Harried "suspected terrorists" shielding their faces from cameras
feeds the indelible impression of guilt. Well-choreographed raids by police
hauling belongings from a "terror" suspect's home offer the
supposed "seal" of proof.
Aided and abetted by a coterie of self-anointed security
experts and police and intelligence "insiders," who conveniently
hide behind the cloak of anonymity, newspapers and newscasts have been
filled with ominous news of yet another nest of terrorists "linked"
to Osama bin Laden lurking in our midst, poised to strike with lethal
The stories follow a familiar arc. First, news leaks
of the arrest or detention of an Arab or Muslim whom "well-placed"
authorities insist has "ties" to terrorism. Then the usual gang
of Opposition MPs, former intelligence officers and sound-bite-proficient
academics offer up the predictable whipping boys to explain away the latest
"Canadian connection" to terror; namely, Canada's "lax"
immigration policy and the "under-funding" of police and intelligence
But the alarmist voices, headlines, intelligence experts,
and reporters are, more often than not, simply wrong.
We saw an example of this regrettable saga play itself
out several months ago. CNN -- the self-proclaimed "world's most
trusted news source" -- sounded the alarm, reporting that five Arab
men carrying false travel documents and bent on terror had infiltrated
the United States via Canada. That the "link" to Canada rested
on a shred and was unsubstantiated had little bearing on news editors
north of the border. Newscasts and newspapers were filled with the "threat"
posed by the illusive and potentially dangerous gang of five.
The story gained even greater cachet in Canada when police
sources "confirmed" that the alert for the stealthy terrorists
was triggered by information supplied by a man holed up in a Toronto jail.
More banner headlines dutifully followed suit.
But there was more. The informant had information that
many more terrorists had slipped into the United States from Canada. The
story hit the media stratosphere, with the pictures of the five suspected
terrorists shown over and over again in the neverending cycle of rumour
that increasingly passes for news on all-news channels.
The story eventually imploded. The FBI admitted it was
all based on a house of cards and blamed its ineptitude on its once-prized
informant, turned hoaxer. The world's pre-eminent law enforcement agency
sheepishly removed the pictures of the five men from its Web site and
called off its hound dogs. The FBI acknowledged that it didn't even know
if the men ever stepped foot inside the United States. Despite its colossal
faux pas, the FBI has yet to offer an apology.
Not surprisingly, media outlets north and south of the
border that were unreservedly complicit in this disgraceful episode weren't
inclined to offer the men an apology either.
So the five men now join a long list of others media
outlets -- working in cahoots with CSIS and the FBI -- have accused of
being terrorists, despite lack of proof. Among them:
* This article is reproduced from MEDIA, the magazine
of the Canadian Association of Journalists, Fall/Winter 2003. Andrew Mitrovica
is an award-winning journalist and author of the book Covert Entry: Spies,
Lies and Crimes Inside Canada's Secret Service.