The Disinformation Age
When Islamism is the issue, the media continue to define deviancy down.

Studios of Al Jazeera America in New York City.


Clifford D. May

Walter Cronkite, the great CBS anchorman from 1962 to 1981, was called “the most trusted man in America” — and polling supported that claim. He’d conclude his CBS Evening News broadcasts with the phrase “And that’s the way it is.” And it was, too — or, more precisely, Uncle Walter defined for most Americans what was news: what was important, and why.

How different is the world today? Polls now show the media’s credibility sinking to historic lows, with only 23 percent of Americans expressing confidence in television news and newspapers.


At the same time, there are more media outlets than ever — print, broadcast, online, social media. New York Times columnist Bill Keller enthuses that “for the curious reader with a sense of direction, this is a time of unprecedented bounty.” His habit, he noted in a column last month, is to follow the news in the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Al Jazeera English, and many other outlets.

Most news consumers — however curious they may be — are unlikely to have Keller’s “sense of direction,” his ability to separate fact from opinion and to recognize misrepresentations, propaganda, and blatant lies. Nor can most readers spend as much time as does a professional newsman gathering information from a long and diverse menu.

I’m writing here for an elite and highly educated audience. But how many of you, I wonder, could speak with authority about the credibility of Ozy Media, Vox Media, Business Insider, Gawker, Reddit, and UpWorthy?

A former senior federal law-enforcement official recently e-mailed me and others an article from a publication called Diversity Chronicle about an 18-year-old West German woman who was attacked while sunbathing and subsequently found guilty of “raping” eight Muslim men “in the first case of its kind in Europe.” The story was a hoax — but it was slick enough to fool this sophisticated individual and perhaps others on his list.

Now imagine a troubled high-school student who finds his way to the glossy online magazine Inspire. How would he know that its publishers, editors, and writers are all members of al-Qaeda? What might it motivate him to do? Actually, no need to imagine: Authorities believe Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used information published in Inspire to make the pressure-cooker bombs used in the Boston Marathon attack.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, now al-Qaeda’s leader, said in 2005: “More than half of this war is taking place on the battlefield of the media.” More recently, Omar al-Hammami, a member of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, said: “The war of narratives has become even more important than the war of navies, napalms, and knives.” Do America’s leaders understand the challenge implicit in those words?

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, according to the U.S. government. Its media voices include the Fars News Agency and the oddly named Press TV. Does anyone believe that they operate according to the ethics taught in Reporting and Writing 101 at the Columbia School of Journalism?

Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s broadcast media outlet, was formally placed on the government’s terrorist exclusion list in 2004. Two years later, after much work — not least by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), the think tank where I hang my hat — it was added to the Specially Designated Global Terrorism List (SDGT).

Al-Aqsa TV is Hamas’s media outlet. It was added to the SDGT list in 2010 by the Obama administration. FDD played an important role in facilitating that designation as well.

But in May of this year, the Newseum, a prestigious Washington institution, announced that it was honoring two Al-Aqsa employees — adding them to the Journalism Memorial Wall, which features Daniel Pearl and other “reporters, photographers, and broadcasters who have died reporting the news.” Near the Wall is a quote from Hillary Clinton: “The men and women of this memorial are truly democracy’s heroes.”