Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Smearing of Steve Emerson

I haven't been blogging in a while. I've been busy with other stuff, and nothing has really raised my hackles enough to bang out something here—at least, until now. What has gotten me annoyed has to do with a gent you may have heard of named Steven Emerson.

Now if I said "what has gotten me annoyed is Steve Emerson" you might know why. He's been all over the media, and not in a good way. He has been pilloried, pounded, thrashed, insulted, denigrated and gleefully attacked, all of it because of a gaffe he made on live TV last Sunday. In an appearance on Jeanine Pirro's show on Fox News Channel discussing the rise of radical Islam in Europe, he said that "there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim, where non-Muslims just simply don't go in."

Now I don't mean to excuse what Emerson did, but on live TV people sometimes say things they shouldn't have said—become confused, or otherwise bollocksed up. I've probably said things in TV appearances I should have said differently or not at all. (I can't recall any but hey, it's possible!) A friend tells me that he once was told that if he let a five-second gap pass by without speaking on a particular program, that he won't be invited back. In other words: "Don't make the mistake of thinking!"

Fact is, Birmingham is not "totally Muslim," though it has a large Muslim minority, and the idea that non-Muslims "simply don't go in" to the city is also wrong, though there have been quite a few reports of Islamic extremism in the city. Emerson had barely gone off the air before the attacks began. British Prime Minister David Cameron said he "choked on his porridge" when he heard that, and said of Emerson "This guy is clearly a complete idiot." 

Emerson didn't respond with equal vitriol, or try to slime his way out of it. He did the right thing (as did Pirro, who quickly slated an on-air correction). He immediately apologized for his remarks and said that he was making a contribution to Birmingham Children's Hospital. It was a heartfelt apology, but it only seemed to make his critics more gleeful in their increasingly vindictive, personal attacks. The most visible of the news organizations on the attack was The New York Times.

The Times and Fox are rivals in a number of ways—politically as well journalistically. Fox commentators have been critical of the Times, in website pieces like this and in remarks by Fox commentators.  That kind of rivalry is fine. It's healthy. It's as old as Park Row. But character assassination, while it may be an old tradition in yellow journalism, is another matter entirely. It's unacceptable and, more often than not, reflects more on the smearer than on the smearee.

The Times, I regret to say, has smeared Emerson in a very fundamental way, by denying his lengthy record as a terrorism expert. The irony is that it did so in offhand, throwaway remarks—very much the kind of error Emerson made. Except that Emerson apologized immediately. The Times has not.

In an "Open Source" column on January 12, reporter Robert Mackey said as follows:
Then, before that wave of digital outrage had even begun to crest, Steve Emerson, a self-described expert on Islamist terrorism, appeared on Fox News to make the startling and false claim that some parts of Europe — including areas of France, London and the entire English city of Birmingham — “are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in.”

Note the inaccuracy. Emerson only said Birmingham was "totally Muslim." The transcript shows he made no such claim about London or Paris. But what strikes me as significant, even more than that sloppiness, was the personal denigration of Emerson, which he repeated in another article.

That article, co-written with Stephen Castle, ran at the top of Page A8 on January 13. Most of the article was routine reporting, a rather simple task for two reporters—perhaps deceptively simple, judging from the three corrections that the Times had to run, and which appear at the bottom of the article to which I just linked.

The lead said as follows:
LONDON — First, the owner of the Fox News Channel incited an outpouring of ridicule for suggesting that all followers of Islam must take responsibility for the Paris attacks. Then the Fox pundit who is a self-described terrorism expert caused a second wave of stunned disbelief, asserting that some parts of Europe — including Britain’s city of Birmingham — have become so Islamic they are off limits to non-Muslims.
Note what I've put in boldface in the two excerpts above. It's what's known on the Internet as a "meme." It's what old fogies like me call a "smear." I would define it as a swift, brief description of something or somebody that takes hold and races across the Internet like a mouse with a tabby cat in pursuit. Describing Emerson as a "self-described expert" has been picked up by the British media, in articles like this one in the Independent.

When you call someone a "self-described expert" it's a bit like calling someone a "self-described doctor." Without actually doing so, you're saying that he or she is not a doctor, not a person of learning and experience. He or she is a phony. A charlatan, a quack and perhaps something of a nut. That's what the expression means.

Another way to smear somebody without actually saying anything nasty (but conveying the thought just as neatly) is the use of what are known as "scare quotes." An example:
I just took my car in to the service center, and the "mechanic" there proceeded to create more problems than I had when I went in.
See what I mean? I've just conveyed to you the message that the mechanic at the service center was inept and perhaps a crook, or maybe not even a mechanic at all but some kid who hangs around the place. That's the judgment that any ordinary reader of that sentence would make, if he believes me.

One of the most widely-read and well-respected columnists at the Times is Nicholas Kristof. In a broadside against Fox on January 14,  Kristof said:
Maybe if these “journalists” left their bubble and actually talked to more Muslims, they wouldn’t spew nonsense — such as that Pakistan is an Arab country or that Birmingham, England, is entirely Muslim and a no-go area for Christians. That paranoid claim by a Fox News “expert,” later retracted, led wags to suggest that the city had renamed itself Birming, since Muslims avoid ham.
I can almost understand the first use of scare quotes. It's pretty much part of the catechism of activists and persons with strong political beliefs that people in the media who disagree with them are not really journalists but are something else. Frogs, perhaps? Termites? But not journalists. But the scare quote around "expert" was of a different order of magnitude. It was directed personally against Emerson.

Like the "mechanic" who screwed up my car and isn't really a mechanic, Emerson is not an "expert" at all, you see. That's the message.

I can't really say I blame Kristof. After all, in this article on Emerson's website in 2008, Emerson raked him over the coals for a column that criticized the U.S. and Israel for isolating the Hamas terror group. If someone had so thoroughly disemboweled something I wrote, I might view that person negatively as well. But I do think that if I was writing a column about the person who had slammed me, I would have made an appropriate disclosure to inform my readers: hey look, I feel this way about this person sincerely, but you ought to know that he has gone after me in the past.

But that's just a quibble. The problem with the scare quotes in Kristof's column, and the denigrating "self-described expert" wording in the news story, is that they are just factually incorrect. Whether you like him or not, or agree with him or not, Emerson is a bona fide expert on terrorism. Period.

How do I know this? Well, for one thing, I read it in The New York Times.

I don't even have to go to Emerson's website, where accolades from numerous distinguished persons are quoted, including former New York Times executive editor A,M. Rosenthal, who said:
 "Steve Emerson is one of the nation's best national security correspondents. His investigative work on radical Islamic fundamentalism is absolutely critical to this nation's national security. There is no one else who has exhibited the same expertise, courage and determination to tackle this vital issue."
I think that quote alone would have been sufficient for any fair-minded person to realize that Emerson is not a "self-described" terrorism expert, that the term "expert" can be used to describe him without scare quotes, and that he has been described that way by people who know what they're talking about.

In this 1995 column, Rosenthal called Emerson "an investigator of terrorism who has turned out a strong body of work in film, books and print journalism. Among government officials I talked to, credit for Mr. Emerson was not only acknowledged but volunteered."  In this column in 1996, he called Emerson a "brave independent journalist" who "has exposed the money-raising of Hamas and other terrorist groups in the U.S. and Washington's failure to take effective action under existing law." 

Kristof began working at the Times in 1984, when Rosenthal was still the Times's executive editor. But he and his colleagues didn't even have to rely upon the word of the man who formerly ran their newspaper.

In this article in the Times in 1988, veteran Times reporters Martin Tolchin and Richard Halloran described Emerson as "an expert on intelligence."

In this book review in the Times in 2002,  then-assistant editorial page editor Ethan Bronner didn't agree with a lot of what was in the book. But he still described Emerson as "an investigator who has performed a genuine service by focusing on radical Islamic groups in this country."

You'd never know any of this if you've only relied upon what the Times has said about Emerson in the past few days. The image it has painted of him is that of a guy who sits in his basement, perhaps communicating with flying saucers through a tinfoil hat.

What's dismaying about the way the media has skewered Emerson is not only that in so doing it has smeared him, but that the outrage is so selective. A case in point: Jim Clancy. The CNN correspondent recently retired after 34 years on the job. For two days after his departure, not a single media outlet pointed out that he left in the wake of an incident in which he churned out bizarre anti-Israel tweets in his Twitter account concerning the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

The Times finally picked up on Clancy in an article prepared for the Sunday edition. Until then, you had to read blogs like Mediaite or Israeli newspapers like the Jerusalem Post to learn about the departure of a CNN broadcaster who is much more high-profile than Emerson. A Gawker item, far more informative than the Times piece, appears to have inspired the newspaper to act.

A sampling of his tweets can be found here. They are at least as inflammatory as Emerson's gaffe, except that they were not a gaffe but a reflection of Clancy's opinions, which are far from sympathetic to Israel.  

Yet the delayed coverage of the Clancy mess in the Times was as even-handed and bland as its handling of Emerson was instantaneous, mean-spirited and vindictive. Note the last paragraph of the Clancy piece, which describes the broadcaster's background, as compared to the total absence of such context in the far longer Emerson articles.

Why the disparate treatment and the utter lack of fairness shown to Emerson? One can only speculate. But while we're pondering that, let's see if the Times corrects its smear of Steve Emerson and the error in the "Open Sources" column.

Let's ponder this as well: what makes Emerson an expert is that he has a strongly-held view of the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, one that he has developed over many years of reporting that have strongly shaped his views. These views are not politically correct, and do not adhere to the point of view generally expressed in the Times, especially in its editorials and by its columnists, especially Kristof.

In a broader sense, the Times, as an institution, has to discredit Emerson, because if he is right in his view of Islamist extremism, the Times is wrong. Dangerously wrong.

© 2015 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

My latest book is AYN RAND NATION: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, published by St. Martin's Press. Click here to order the book from, and here to order it from Barnes & Noble. Follow me on Twitter: @gary_weiss

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