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September 14, 2012

The Media Runs With Sam Bacile and his Hundred Jewish Donors Story

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The need for news providers to be on top of breaking news doesn't relieve them of the responsibility for verifying the truthfulness and accuracy of their sources. Fact checking is especially important in circumstances involving combustible mixtures of emotion and deeply-rooted prejudices, as occurs when anti-Jewish conspiracies are advanced. Unfortunately, much of the media's initial coverage of a Youtube film trailer alleged to have incited attacks on the American embassies in Egypt and Libya on Sept. 11, 2012 fell into a familiar pattern of running with a story dripping with obvious anti-Israel or anti-Jewish innuendo.

As Muslim mobs, allegedly outraged over the film, "The Innocence of Muslims," assaulted American embassies and murdered American diplomatic personnel, the Associated Press (AP) and The Wall Street Journal published portions of telephone interviews with a man who identified himself as an Israeli-American named Sam Bacile and claimed to be the film's director. News outlets, especially those known for favoring stories with an anti-Israel angle, like the Guardian, NPR , BBC, the Huffington Post and others, ran with the story. Some television networks followed suit as well. ABC's Good Morning America with correspondent Christiane Amanpour, repeated the allegation that an Israeli-American directed the film.

According to the AP and the Wall Street Journal, Bacile made a series of inflammatory statements, calling Islam a "cancer," insulting Islam's prophet and bizarrely asserting that the film was backed by "100 Jewish donors."

The incendiary content of Bacile's statements, especially the "100 Jewish donors" should have immediately raised suspicion and counseled cautious use of language conveying skepticism about the source. It is telling of the state of mind that exists among some media outlets that no one considered how illogical it was that if Bacile really was an Israeli Jew who made the film to benefit his "native land," as he claimed, he would want to disclose information that would be so damaging to his stated intent.

The Guardian initial report contained no hint of uncertainty about the veracity of the source. In a piece titled, "Muhammad film: Israeli director goes into hiding after protests" the Guardian wrote,

Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location, the writer and director Sam Bacile remained defiant, describing Islam as "a cancer". The 56-year-old said he had intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion. ... Bacile, a California property developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew, said he believed the movie would help his native land by exposing Islam's flaws to the world. ... 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. Mr. Bacile said he raised $5 million from about 100 Jewish donors, whom he declined to identify.

The story unraveled almost immediately.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg was suspicious about Bacile's identity and decided to look into the matter. Goldberg contacted Steve Klein, a known anti-Muslim activist who was identified as the film's consultant. Goldberg continues,

Klein told me that Bacile, the producer of the film, is not Israeli, and most likely not Jewish, as has been reported, and that the name is, in fact, a pseudonym. He said he did not know "Bacile's real name... He said the man who identified himself as Bacile asked him to help make the anti-Muhammad film. When I asked him to describe Bacile, he said: "I don't know that much about him. I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He's not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved.

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post published an article on September 13 that takes to task the media for being loathe to correct their initial failure to validate Bacile's identity and story. Farhi writes,

The apparent misreporting of Bacile’s identity triggered a series of “updates’’ from media sources, but no direct admissions that earlier reports were incorrect.

Eventually, most news outlets and networks clarified that the "Bacile" story was a hoax and an Egyptian American named Nakoula Bassely Nakoula is the most likely person behind the making of the film. CNN was particularly expeditious in this regard. However, the damage has been done and even after the story had been debunked, some in the news media were still discussing the alleged Israeli-American and Jewish angle. The question remains, why were these outlets, especially those with a reflexive habit of publishing or airing stories that make Israel or Jews who support Israel look bad, so eager to run with such a dubious story.

Posted by SS at September 14, 2012 12:41 PM

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