Think what you will of libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul, but I’m crying foul over this post to the Politico’s “Crypt” blog: “Ron Paul warns of staged terror attack.” Paul simply did not say that the government is planning a fake terror attack, and to say otherwise is journalistic malpractice.
My first reaction to the Politico headline — most people’s reaction, I’m sure — was that Paul should not be elected or defeated, but institutionalized. Then I read what is actually posted there, and I saw no quote from Paul about a “staged terrorist attack.” I did see a summary by Politico blogger Dan Reilly that says Paul “clearly insinuated that the administration would not be above staging an incident to revive flagging support.”
So I listened to the interview, trying to find what Reilly describes. And I listened to it again. And again. And I heard nothing of the sort.
What I did hear was an unhinged radio host ask Paul a wide-ranging, minute-long, wacky question about terrorism, Bush the “dictator,” and neo-cons that ended with “How much danger are we in of some new Gulf of Tonkin provocation?” Paul begins his answer with, ”Well, I think we’re in great danger of it — we’re in danger in many ways.” But as he continues, Paul says nothing about a staged terror attack or the Gulf of Tonkin. Rather, he goes into his usual schtick, complaining about the “great danger” involved in the loss of “civil liberties” and the evils of U.S. Iraq policy. Then he speaks to the likelihood of a real terrorist attack — not a staged attack:
“I would say that we’re in much greater danger than we’ve been, even four or five years ago, whether it’s overseas or even by terrorists here at home, because I just think the policies are seriously flawed.”
So he’s talking about Iraq as possibly making us more vulnerable to terrorism. Call him wrong or even crazy, but this is just standard Ron Paul. It is nothing like a black-helicopter accusation that the government is planning a phony terror attack. If you actually listen to the exchange, the closest Paul comes to saying anything like what’s in the Politico summary comes when he faults the administration’s Iran policy:
“Right now there is an orchestrated effort to blame the Iranians for everything that’s gone wrong in Iraq. And we’re quite concerned, many of us, that the attack will be on Iran and that will confuse things and jeopardize so many more of our troops.”
Call Ron Paul nutty if you like — and certainly this media appearance gives reasons for doing so (he almost predicts an economic collapse later in the interview). But when he says he sees the Bush administration trying to justify war with Iran (which is itself worthy of a headline), that’s just not the same thing as saying that the government plans to stage a terrorist attack to boost its flagging approval ratings. It’s not even close.
Paul is a barely relevant figure who has no chance in the election anyway, but you don’t need to like him to see the danger of this kind of sloppy headline-writing and summarizing. Careless reporters caused riots in the Middle East when they did a similar number on Pope Benedict XVI and his citation of Emperor Paleologus. The pope had actually given a very thoughtful and academic speech about Islamic-Christian relations, but thanks to the journalists, all hell broke loose. Other examples of this dangerous silliness abound.
The media has other problems besides its liberal bias, such as the need for quick sound-bites, inaccurate summaries, and headlines that often come at the expense of getting things right.