Journalism in the Public Interest

Jumping the Gunman

Publicity still from Broadway production of 'The Front Page' The recent reporting on Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, is a classic run-and-gun investigative story in which dozens of reporters badger officials to disclose a new fact (which gets you on page one) or two new facts (which is enough to snag the coveted lead-of-the-paper slot on a slow day). This wolf-pack approach to reporting almost invariably produces stories that lack context, which is hardly surprising.

After all, reporters are telling a complex story by unveiling the key aspects as they learn them.  It’s roughly akin to taking scenes from say, the three "Godfather" movies and spitting out them out as YouTube videos in random order. Good luck to anyone trying to follow the plot.

On the Hasan story, one of the earliest newsbreaks seems, at least so far, to be among the least clear. 

About a year ago, U.S. intelligence intercepted messages sent by Hasan to Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical imam in Yemen. A task force of counterterrorism officials reviewed those messages, determined they were benign —consistent with work-related research Hasan was doing — and never contacted anyone in the military familiar with Hasan’s record in the military.

Newspapers, Web sites and TV all gave huge play to the story. But what was anyone expecting the government to do about someone who exchanged e-mails or text messages with a known bad guy? Seize his legally obtained gun? Remove him from his job? Arrest him as a material witness to a crime not yet committed?

Maj. Nidal Malik HasanLast night, NPR provided some context in an exclusive story on "All Things Considered." Daniel Zwerdling reported that Hasan’s supervisors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center had become increasingly worried that their young resident was losing touch with reality and might be psychotic and a danger to himself or others. They weighed firing Hasan, decided that would be too difficult, and sent him off to Fort Hood without a formal mental health evaluation.

Now, the intercepted messages story has more meaning.

Remember the contacts between Hasan and the Yemeni cleric? They are reported to have occurred in December 2008, which appears to be the same time as Walter Reed doctors were wondering whether Hasan might be capable of what NPR termed "fratricide."

The terrorism task force that reviewed the potential threat posed by Hasan looked at his personnel files. But they never knew of the doctors’ concerns, because as, The New York Times reported today, the doctors didn’t add them to his file.

Had the Federal Bureau of Investigation spoken to his supervisors – an idea that raises a host of civil liberties and privacy questions – the assessment of the danger he posed might have been different.  But the available facts suggest that no one knew the full picture, which meant no one could start "connecting the dots.’’

The reader faces a similar challenge as the Hasan story unfolds in the coming months.

Here’s something to keep in mind: It is a long-established rule for reporting that the first accounts of any military action are frequently wrong. A corollary: The initial reports in a run-and-gun investigative story seldom age well. Remember the hero female cop who shot Hasan?  Well, maybe she did and maybe she didn’t. And the purported view of Walter Reed officials that Hasan might be a threat?  Shortly after the NPR story aired, the Washington Post asserted the possibility that Hasan might be "delusional" was never taken seriously and addressed by his supervisors only "in passing.’’

Stay tuned.

Stephen Engelberg is managing editor of ProPublica.

jeffrey tucker

Nov. 12, 2009, 4:20 p.m.

My understanding of The News Hour report was that the chief difficulty in firing him at Walter Reed was because he is a practicing Muslim and what their action might unleash if they tried to separate him from active service.

Don’t forget the very, ,very first assertion about the gunman.  That he was dead.

Nobody seems to be questioning how you miss the fact a person is alive. Many top officials repeated that he was dead over the course of many hours.

I see an awful lot of criticism of others methods of reporting. What is reported, when it was reported, motives/conspiracies, you name it. Intelligent people reserve judgement on issues until they feel they have enough information of a trustworthy type to form an opinion. Most of the consumers of news are not intellectuals and are, in fact, borderline idiots. This is not disputable. We elected GWB TWICE!! What does that tell you? Aw, I’m getting tired of the whole human race. Chest beating, killing, greed, power. It never ends. Think community. Pour your efforts into your community. Our only hope for a good life.

Today’s publishers, who are the most interested in selling ad spots, are constantly asking today’s “journalists”, “How did they get that story first”. As a result of pressure from the corporatists, who now own the media, the rules of journalism have been thrown out the window, less skilled reporters are paid less, and no one will be fired for reporting that the shooter was dead or that he requested a discharge. That is why news reporting now resembles a Turret Syndrome.

websmith, excuse my ignorance, but I am unfamiliar with Turret Syndrome? Did you mean Tourette Syndrome? If so, I fail to see the specific point. Newspapers have become a joke. I get all of my news from The Nation, The Progressive, The New Yorker, and certain online news providers. The only part of the newspaper I like is the funnies. Time, Newsweek, are not too hot. People and US make me want to hurl. I even used to enjoy Sports Illustrated somewhat. No more.

Donna Wetzler

Nov. 12, 2009, 6:28 p.m.

Yes, Mr. Engelberg, after 9/11 I do expect the government to do something about possible “nut cases” like this, regardless of political correctness.  13 lives could have been saved.  14 if you count the unborn baby.  But, then, that in itself is another whole subject of contention.
News associations give people what they want - instant news, whether it is totally accurate or not.  We all know the facts will be sifted to death and we’ll get to the bottom of the story sooner or later.  It’s always facinating to see what the “real story” turns out to be.  Balloon Boy - cast in point.

Did the woman officer really shoot the gunman? Did he really die? Were we given the true number of those killed? Some confusion is understandable, but this is a bit much! People just don’t trust the military.
Now we hear the gunman was breaking with reality.
Oh, that makes everything clear.

If one were to grasp what is being said here then one can make the “assumption” that all news media then is biased or wrong?  Is that what is being said?  If that is the case; then who would the news media or reporting agencies be standing with the DEAD/VICTIMS and those shot OR the VICTIMIZER?  America needs to ask itself..should we stay up at night and contemplate over and over a gunman who dressed up in Muslim attire the morning of the shooting to go get his coffee; one who purchased said guns with ammo AHEAD of that day and then proceeded to bring them on base; ONE who undeniably has been quoted as saying he was “anti war etc” yet, was supported by the military that he damaged last week and now will go down in history…So, is the challenge here that AMERICA should just give the guy a pass?  OR IS THE CHALLENGE HERE that the news media should shape up and call it what it is” an act of Muslim/Extremist terrorism”...not unlike many, many others before him.  Just a new “twist” as he was on American soil on a military base.  Nothing sacred left inside America, but to continue to “speculate” about terrorism?  I think not.

I am very upset about this act of terrorism and don’t understand how basic info could get so twisted and repeated by very high level people. But, if leaders and reporters were doing their best to be accurate, we have to accept that. My main concern, which we probably share, is that the gunman could have been considered delusional a year ago.
How could he still be allowed to treat patients on a base?
This doesn’t make sense to me. Sorry if my views offend you.

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