- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2007

As news emerged yesterday of a thwarted terrorist attack on New Jersey’s Fort Dix Army base, a familiar transformation occurred. First the accused were “Yugoslav.” Then they were “Albanian and Middle Eastern.” Next, the terms changed. They were “described by U.S. federal prosecutors as ‘Islamic militants.’ ” Finally, they were self-described “jihadists” who watch Osama bin Laden videos, intending to murder as many American military personnel as possible. Three are illegal-alien Albanians, a fourth is an Albanian of unspecified status, the fifth a Jordan-born naturalized U.S. citizen and the sixth a Turkish-born legal resident. This is quite a transformation.

We don’t mean to be unduly harsh regarding media coverage in a fast-changing story like this one. Surely some leeway is warranted when the facts are up in the air, and a news organization’s first priority is to get it right and get it right first. One day’s worth of confusion is not so terrible in the grand scheme of things. But when a fact — “Albanian” — emerges, report it. The public has a right to know. The sanitization of language is at war with the public’s right to an understanding of the facts. We can’t ignore it.

“Yugoslav” is a sanitizer. Radio listeners and consumers of Internet news nationwide yesterday heard “Yugoslav” but clearly wondered: “Is this Islamist terrorism?” They were not wrong to wonder.

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Early in this story, the Albanian connection emerged in some outlets, but “Yugoslav,” a term we associate with Slobodan Milosevic or Josip Tito more than Islamist violence, persisted. The connotations of “Albanian” begin with the fact that 70 percent of Albanians are Muslim. Now, combine “Albanian” with the allegation of a thwarted assault-rifle attack on Fort Dix. This suggests a working hypothesis. The hypothesis: An attack by Islamist terrorists may just have been thwarted. It has nothing to do with anti-fascist partisans or Communist apparatchiks.

Our news organizations seem now to be acting upon the desire to avoid fueling that speculation as long as possible. We’re not clear why, except for their biases, or perhaps their worry of offending people. Thus they conclude with quotes like this one, which appeared at the end of CBS’s dispatch yesterday: ” ‘If these people did something, then they deserve to be punished to the fullest extent of the law,’ said Sohail Mohammed, a lawyer who represented many of the detainees. ‘But when the government says ‘Islamic militants,’ it sends a message to the public that Islam and militancy are synonymous.’ ”

No, it doesn’t, and news organizations should not end stories with such spurious claims. The government can and should say “Islamic militants” if in fact there is credible evidence that the accused are Islamic militants. In this case, federal prosecutors have the recordings of an informant to illustrate it.

The American people are smart enough to figure it out. They need this information when it is available. As long as our news organizations fail to report the facts they know to be true, they are failing to do their job. They should not engage in “perception management.”

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