Editor’s Note: This story includes updates at the bottom, and a correction.
Note to young, and professional, journalists alike. Don’t get “Sam Baciled” (pronounced, appropriately, like bamboozled) — particularly not when you’re reporting on acts of terrorism in the Middle East, during an election year, on the anniversary of September 11.
In the aftermath of the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead, and the protests at the embassy in Cairo, most media outlets aggressively pushed the story that the attacks were a “Satanic Verses”-style retaliation for a crude, cheaply produced film of dubious origins called “Innocence of Muslims” that depicts the prophet Mohammed offensively.
Blogs mentioned conspiracy theories, false flag operations and the CIA. Commenters foamed at the mouth. The Drudge Report posted a provocative picture of an unconscious victim, and a somewhat misleading headline involving suffocation. The implication seemed to be that a corpse was dragged through the streets. The reality, it turns out, was that ordinary Libyans ferried the unconscious U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens, to a hospital where a doctor spent an unsuccessful hour and a half trying to revive him.
Stories in more reputable news outlets, like the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal, explained that the offending film was made by an Israeli-American named Sam Bacile, cost $5 million, and was financed with money culled from “more than 100 Jewish donors.”
The AP reporter Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, who
broke advanced the story of Bacile, noted that the film “shows an amateur cast performing a wooden dialog.” Aside from Bacile, who “was apologetic about the American who was killed as a result of the outrage over his film,” the only other source in the story was a man named Steve Klein who served as “a consultant on the film.” *(See correction on this section at the bottom of story.)
After much speculation that Sam Bacile was a sort of spectral, Keyser Soze figure, the filmmaker was later outed as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a 55-year-old Egyptian Coptic Christian and convicted felon. But not before he was somehow strangely profiled while “in hiding” in The Independent, and partially unmasked in The Atlantic by his co-conspirator, Klein.
Perpetuating an Anti-Semitic Narrative
The AP clearly dropped the ball on the original story, and perpetuated a latently anti-Semitic narrative that resulted in headlines such as “Israel Distances Itself from Prophet Muhammad Film“ (as if the burden of distancing should be on them). They somehow figured out that Sam Bacile didn’t exist, and that his address and phone number were remarkably similar to that of Nakoula.
However, before this happened, there was some collective uncertainty surrounding Bacile, and, before I went to bed Wednesday night, I scoured Google News one more time, and was treated to retread stories such as “What We Know About ‘Sam Bacile‘” on NPR’s news blog, which admits, rather tediously, in its second paragraph, that “the bottom line is that we know very little about ‘Sam Bacile.’” The most compelling thing about the story, up to this point, is its use of scare quotes to establish symbolic distance, and to tell us that they’re onto him, even if they’re not.
The use of “we” implies that we’re all in this together, and that we were all bamboozled, and attempts, rhetorically, to lay the cards on the table and get back to the business of figuring out who the most evil, and, quite possibly, the stupidest, person in the world really is. However, “we,” the news-consuming public, were only fooled because of journalists’ sloppy reporting and lack of fact-checking.
Because the story appeared on NPR’s news blog called The Two-Way, they did add numerous updates and links to stories that corrected the record.
B.S. Detector Goes Off
The original story set off my B.S. detector, and a bunch of bloggers posted that they too were questioning the story line.
Buzzfeed.com thought that $5 million is a lot to pay for a movie with such a bad script and low production values.
Jewishjournal.com published a piece outlining five reasons “Jews didn’t make the anti-Mohammad movie.”
There were also reports that linked the film to the Coptic Christian Egyptian diaspora in the U.S. before the attacks in Libya.
For me, the adamant, redundant, and simplistic quote “Islam is a cancer”; the callousness with which Bacile blamed lax security at the consulate for the deaths there; and the fact that he had to use a “consultant” to make such a bad film, all raised red flags.
True Story Emerges
Now that the dust has settled, it looks like a bunch of fundamentalist Christians were aided by a fundamentalist Islamic cleric in Egypt to stir up chaos in the Middle East, and to give us an Arab Fall as a dark, election-year coda to the Arab Spring (while all the while blaming the Jews).
It feels like something out of Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical movies, or an episode of “South Park” — only tragic rather than satiric.
The “credible” mainstream media’s complicity in perpetuating the falsehood is tragic as well. But perhaps more tragic is their collective inability to admit that they were played, and the fact that they posted “updated” stories, and “extras” shedding new light on Bacile, and in the process buried the original, erroneous stories under a blizzard of faux-mystery and spin.
The unmasking of Bacile became a news event in its own right, and the media disavowed its role in creating him in the first place.
Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal published a late-to-the-party “story” on Thursday afternoon titled: “Who is ‘Sam Bacile’?: New intriguing leads on the man who made the world’s most deadly movie trailer.”
The piece recounts, “On Tuesday, the Journal spoke to a man who claimed to be the director and called himself Sam Bacile.” This sentence is remarkable because it simultaneously distances the writer of the original story from Bacile, and at the same time, reminds us that they spoke to him, or thought they spoke to him, on Tuesday (as if still proud of their erroneous scoop).
Next, it tells us what we already know, that “there are no records of a ‘Sam Bacile’ either in the U.S. or Israel.” Again, notice the use of quotes for the sake of distance, and the modifier, “a,” to reinforce Bacile’s fictiveness.
In a manner that’s a bit too self-congratulatory, Stephens notes that he found the cipher on Facebook with the help of a tipster, and that said Facebook page abruptly disappeared. Fortunately, though, our intrepid reporter caught it in a screen grab first — although there’s no picture of “Bassel,” as it’s spelled on Facebook, for those of us wanting to put a face on evil.
Oblivious to Role of the Media
Finally, Stephens reveals that Bacile is not an Israeli-American! And explains that “his attempt to pass himself off as one is a potentially deadly slander.” But Stephens is completely oblivious to his own paper’s role in broadcasting said slander earlier in the week. As I tell my students, and as most working journalists know, if you print falsehoods, then the fact that someone lied to you doesn’t get you off the hook.
Mohajer, the AP reporter, has a biography on Twitter that notes that she’s a health reporter who is filling in on the night shift, and includes the now nearly ironic appeal to righteousness: “I endorse nothing.” She published an update that feels something like a “correction,” at least as it’s running on Salon. And she was also partially responsible for the story that figured out that they’d been duped, and that Bacile sounded suspiciously like Nakoula’s middle name. This is a step in the right direction, and a nice gesture toward absolving her karmic debt as far as the facts go. But there was no mention of the fact that she built a B.S. story entirely around a bad source — or any sense of contrition.
This sort of hard-nosed investigative reporting and digging is a day late and a dollar short. Savvy bloggers detected B.S. in Bacile’s story. It’s the sort of work that the reporters should have done before they ran the original story.
I reached out to the AP and Wall Street Journal to get a comment about their errors, but hadn’t heard back from them by press time.
Journalists are increasingly being asked to prove that they add value. And they’re increasingly desperate when it comes to earning their own keep. They might be one hit, or one hundred thousand hits, away from a layoff, an axed publication schedule of the sort recently imposed on the Times-Picayune, or a reduced page count and the loss of their perfect bindings.
Sadly, their inability to engage in meta-analysis, and their circling of the wagons, doesn’t help their odds.
UPDATE (9/14/12 at 2 pm PT): The Wall Street Journal has issued a correction to its initial version of the AP story. The Journal’s Bret Stephens responded to PBS MediaShift’s query and explained his own role in the story:
This whole thing blindsided everyone…As you can tell by what I wrote yesterday, I was just trying to shed some light on a mystery…I essentially came to the story late. I’m a columnist, not a reporter. I’m not in the business of trying to break news as some of my colleagues are. I wrote this piece because a couple streams of information suggested to me that this was a Jewish or Israeli thing looked flat-out wrong. I had a few leads that looked interesting and were worth posting.
I guess there are some big meta-issues about living in a world where we have to get our stories out so quickly that we neglect the possible fatal consequences of an error. But on the other hand, there’s always a judgment call to be made about the proper balance between perfect accuracy and speed.
I think the AP did a pretty good job, as did my colleagues on the news side of the Journal, tracking down the person who may be the real author/director/producer of this film. Not fast enough, but… I’m not really comfortable playing the role as media critic here…I don’t want to start attacking reporters in the AP until I understand how this happened and how quickly it was corrected. What I tried to do yesterday was offer something that was carefully reported and acknowledged the limits of what I could find out. So I hope I did my job as well as I should have.
Meanwhile, an earlier erroneous report from the AP remains uncorrected on the Huffington Post. It begins with this unfortunate line: “An Israeli filmmaker based in California went into hiding after a YouTube trailer of his movie attacking Islam’s prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by ultra-conservative Muslims on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya.”
UPDATE (9/14/12 at 3:30 pm PT): The AP has issued a correction to its original story. No word on how those corrections will filter out to all the AP stories posted on so many hundreds of websites (not to mention the erroneous tweets and Facebook updates):
Correction: Egypt filmmaker story
LOS ANGELES (AP) — In a Sept. 12 story about a film that sparked deadly protests in Libya and Egypt, The Associated Press quoted a man who identified himself in several phone conversations as Sam Bacile, and who said he wrote and directed the film. The AP story quoted him saying he was an Israeli Jew. In later reporting, the AP was unable to find any public records confirming the existence of a person with that name.
The AP subsequently reported that Nakoula Basseley Nakoula was the key figure behind the film. Federal authorities confirmed that finding. A federal law enforcement official told The Associated Press on Thursday that authorities had connected Nakoula to the man using the pseudonym of Sam Bacile. Federal court papers filed against Nakoula in a 2010 criminal prosecution noted that Nakoula had used numerous aliases, including Nicola Bacily and Robert Bacily. Nakoula told the AP on Wednesday that he is a Coptic Christian.
The person claiming to be Bacile said in his conversation with the AP that the film was financed with the help of more than 100 Jewish donors. According to Film L.A. Inc., which grants filming permits in Los Angeles County, the production company for the film was a Duarte, Calif.-based Christian group, Media for Christ. The president of that organization is a Christian from Egypt.
UPDATE (9/14/12 at 3:40 pm PT): Paul Colford, director of media relations for the AP, explained in an email to PBS MediaShift: “We distribute corrections to all those who received the original story. But we know this is not perfect once a story has entered the wide world of the Net. We are always actively looking to improve things, while recognizing our limitations when it comes to websites and platforms operated by others.”
*CORRECTION (9/14/12 at 6:50 pm PT): Colford also emailed to say that the AP wire had already broken the story (along with the Wall Street Journal) of “Sam Bacile” before AP reporter Shaya Tayefe Mohajer came to advance the story later. According to Colford:
“Bacile” was spoken to by AP and his name was on the AP wire before Shaya picked up the story in L.A. and continued with it. She did not “break” the story. I can’t be sure but I believe the WSJ also reported on Bacile around the same time.
Devin Harner is an assistant professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/City University of New York where he teaches journalism, film, and contemporary literature. His recent scholarly work has included essays on Chuck Palahniuk’s non-fiction; on the film Adaptation’s relationship to Susan Orlean’s, “The Orchid Thief;” and on virtual time travel through YouTube. He is currently at work on a piece that treats Buddhist philosophy in Richard Kelly’s film, “Donnie Darko.”