The numerous errors and missteps in the reporting about the terrorist attacks in France underlined the impact of cutbacks in international bureaus for many news organizations, particularly U.S. television outlets.
NBC News’ Pete Williams committed the most egregious error: announcing two days early that the terrorists had been killed. The network blamed the mistake on anonymous sources rather than bad reporting.
Fox News analyst Steven Emerson provided the second-biggest mistake when he described the British city of Birmingham, which has 1.5 million people, as “totally Muslim” and as a locale where “non-Muslims just simply don’t go.” That came as a surprise to 80 percent of the population who don’t follow Islam.
What became apparent during the coverage was the lack of understanding of France by many reporters who parachuted in from New York and London.
That’s because the top three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, no longer have staff members based in Paris, according to the latest Pew Research Center figures from 2013. That doesn’t translate into solid reporting about a massive story such as the Paris attacks.
When I headed bureaus for Newsweek in Beirut and ABC News in Cairo and Rome, I supervised talented staffs that understood their home countries and the surrounding ones. In Paris, the ABC bureau had a great team, including three of the most honored camera crews in the world.
But this presence apparently proved too expensive. The closures left ABC and others with few sources — critical resources for journalists that seemed significantly absent in much of the reporting during the past week.
That’s why I turned to France24.com, which did a solid job of providing viewers with what had happened. The network also reported on various issues involving radical Islamists in France and provided information from French sources and analysts rather than the U.S. types seen repeatedly on American television who didn’t seem to know much.
France 24, a 24/7 operation, broadcasts three TV channels, in French, English and Arabic. The service, which is available online at France24.com, reaches 250 million households in nearly 200 countries. In fact, at least two U.S. television outlets used the feed from France 24 at various times throughout the siege — a wise decision, in my view.
Although CNN did not make the worst errors during its coverage of the French siege, the network contributed some significant mistakes, including Christiane Amanpour’s reference to the terrorists as “activists” and inviting former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean on the air to talk about the attack. In between, a kerfuffle occurred when anchor Anderson Cooper corrected fellow anchor Chris Cuomo about an error he made by calling the kosher store killer an African-American rather than African.
The decision by some media organizations such as The New York Times and Fox News not to publish the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo because they might offend Muslims or might endanger reporters made absolutely no sense to me.
I spent a number of years working in the Middle East at a time when reporters faced kidnapping and worse; I risked my life and those of others in covering the news. Even the public editor of The New York Times disagreed with the news organization’s decision not to publish the first post-shooting cover of Charlie Hebdo, which has a drawing of a weeping Muhammad.
The only way to combat Islamic extremism is to fight it head on, with free speech. The U.S. media should not worry whether they will offend Muslims by publishing the drawings. The operative phrase should be: “Je ferai rapport sur les terrorisme sans crainte” — I will report on terrorism without fear.
• Christopher Harper is a longtime reporter who teaches journalism at Temple University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @charper51.