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Published on August 5th, 2011 | by Ali Gharib3
Anatomy of a Blown Story: Jennifer Rubin and the Norway Terror Attacks
The neoconservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin came under fire recently (including from me) for jumping prematurely to blame Islamic extremists for the terror attacks in Norway. The Post’s ombudsperson wrote a less-than-compelling defense of Rubin which, in turn, provoked even more controversy about her actions, particularly the the timing of her subsequent so-called “mea culpa post.”
But just how did we get here in the first place?
Looking at Rubin’s original post, what jumps out right away is her sourcing. She opens with (the still-reliable) Post newsroom reporting, then quotes analysis from two dyed-in-the-wool neocons. First up is Thomas Joscelyn, an FDD fellow opining at the Weekly Standard. Joscelyn, as quoted by Rubin, wrote:
We don’t know if al Qaeda was directly responsible for today’s events, but in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra.[Emphasis added.]
Rubin then quotes AEI‘s Gary Schmitt, who said, “[A]s the attack in Oslo reminds us, there are plenty of al-Qaeda allies still operating,” and then goes on to make her case for increased defense spending because of “jihadists.”
But, aside from their common neoconservatism, what was most striking about Rubin’s sources was the confidence with which they felt they could identify the likely perpetrator(s) and their jihadi motivations at an early stage in the chaos, a time when most serious commentators on security issues recognize that ‘facts’ are still fluid and could even be outright wrong (or later realize that they should have recognized it). So, are Rubin’s neoconservative sources serious commentators?
Schmitt, despite his faulty claims in the run-up to the Iraq war, his leadership of the Project of the New American Century, at least served as a Hill intel staffer and worked in the Defense Department before nesting at AEI.
And Thomas Joscelyn? The Post ombudsperson, Patrick Pexton, calls him a “terrorism expert,” but looking at his bio, his credentials seem a tad weak:
Thomas served as the senior terrorism adviser for Mayor Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign. In 2006 he was named one of the Claremont Institute‘s Lincoln Fellows. He holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of Chicago.
On a Blogger bio, he identifies himself as a “terrorism researcher, writer and economist.” Other than that, he seems to have struck up a career helping to run an FDD project or two and writing at the Weekly Standard, where credulous reporting contributed greatly to the push for war with Iraq (see Ahmed Chalabi). Pexton’s unqualified endorsement of Joscelyn as a “terrorism expert” seems inappropriate at best. Perhaps he took Rubin’s word for it.
In the Norway case, Joscelyn’s “expertise” seems highly suspect in other ways, too. He noted in the Standard that the immediate claims of responsibility for the Norway attacks were made by what he called “prominent jihadists” on an internet forum. But U.S. officials told the New York Times that “the group [that made the initial claims] was previously unknown and might not even exist.” Furthermore, actual terrorism experts said the user making the claims was unreliable.
With Joscelyn in mind, I think an over-looked theme of Rubin’s so-called “mea culpa post” (as the ombudsperson called it) was that it wasn’t much of a “mea culpa” at all. Compare the first block quote above, in all its incredibly weakly-caveated glory, to Rubin’s selective quoting of those caveats in her “mea culpa” (Rubin’s emphasis):
Right Turn specifically quoted Thomas Joscelyn of the Weekly Standard for the proposition that we “[didn]’t know [emphasis added]” at the time if al-Qaeda was responsible, although there was plenty of concern in Norway about jihadist terror plots that have increased in Scandinavia.
That “[didn]’t” — bolded and altered to the past tense — only applied, in Joscelyn’s original piece, to al Qaeda being “directly responsible,” and is followed by a clause that said, “in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra.” Yet Rubin selectively quotes it as if it was a catch-all hedge. From there, she sprang from her debunked premise to a baseless restatement of her original conclusion — that the attacks mean the U.S. must not under any circumstances whatsoever cut defense spending.
These issues of journalistic integrity: accurate quoting, accounting, and good reliable sourcing — seem to me to be more pressing than those being bandied about the blogosphere that Rubin cited her Sabbath observance as an excuse for her delayed correction when she isn’t actually all that observant or that she perhaps misled the Post’s ombudsperson. After all, with Rubin at the forefront of pushing for what would be a disastrous and difficult war with Iran, we should be paying attention not to whether she bends Sabbath rules or what she’s telling her paper’s ombudsperson, but what she (and her sources) tell Washington Post readers.