Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Omitting the lede in North Carolina

On March 3, 2006, one Mohammed Reza Taheri-Azar drove a rented Jeep Cherokee SUV into a group of pedestrians on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. Nine people were injured in the attack, for which Taheri-Azar, a 22-year-old UNC graduate, told police he had rented the biggest, heaviest vehicle he could find.

After his arrest, Taheri-Azar declared in open court that he was "thankful for the opportunity to spread the will of Allah.". During his incarceration, he wrote a series of letters to the student newspaper the Daily Tarheel, outlining in considerable detail his Islamic justification for the assault, quoting the Qur'an by chapter and verse. Among the Qur'anic mandates he cited were "To release anger and rage from Allah's followers' hearts: (9:14-15)," "To test Allah's followers' faith: (8:17)," "To prevent mischief on earth: (2:251)," and "To be rewarded by Allah: (2:154, 9:19-22, 9:111, 9:120-121)." He also declared that "Due to my religious motivation for the attack, I feel no remorse and am proud to have carried it out in service of and in obedience of Allah. Considering that I injured several people both physically and psychologically, who were also American taxpayers, I feel that I succeeded in obeying Allah's commandment to fight against the enemies of His followers."

This morning, after more than two years of machinations, Taheri-Azar pleaded guilty to nine counts of attempted murder, as part of a plea bargain in which the nine counts will be consolidated into two for sentencing purposes and nine counts of aggravated felonious assault will be dropped. Depsite the manifest centrality of Taheri-Azar's Muslim creed and its scripture to his motive, the Orange County News and Observer reported on this development without once mentioning Islam, Muslims or the Qur'an.

Perhaps News and Observer reporter Jesse James Deconto (or those who edit his copy) were following the "diversity guidelines" adopted by the Society of Professional Journalists on Oct. 6, 2001 (before the ashes of 9/11 had quite cooled), which admonish journalists to "Use language that is informative and not inflammatory." But frequently language that is informative -- to wit, the truth -- is inflammatory. To refuse to inform the public because the hoi polloi might become inflamed bespeaks an arrogant disdain for the people's right to know. That such self-censorship has become standard operating procedure for American journalists bodes ill not only for the integrity of their profession but for its future.

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