Saturday, April 08, 2006

IT'S A SHAME THAT WHEN two well-known online columnists criticize Jill Carroll's critics for leaping at her throat in response to statements she made immediately after her kidnappers released her, both columnists sabotaged their own messages -- one of them by being overly broad, and the other by being a dissembler.

In her Boston Globe column today, titled "Bloggers Owe Jill Carroll an Apology," Ellen Goodman writes:

I AM SURE that Jill Carroll and her family are too busy inhaling the sweet spring air of freedom to spend time sniffing out the pollution in the blogosphere. Anyone who spent three months imagining the grimmest fate for this young journalist in the hands of terrorists can't get too upset when a little Internet posse goes after her scalp.

Nevertheless, this is not a good moment for the bustling, energetic Wild West of the new Internet media. Remember when a former CBS executive described bloggers as guys in pajamas writing in their living rooms? Well, it seems that many have only one exercise routine: jumping to conclusions.

In the hours between captivity and true freedom, Carroll was seen in one propaganda film describing the mujahideen as "good people fighting an honorable fight" and in another interview saying she was never threatened. An online jeering section bought it hook, line, and sinker without waiting to hear that the videos were made under threat. As Alex Jones of Harvard's Shorenstein Center said, "They were gulled by a clever piece of propaganda and ought to be ashamed of themselves."

I have no argument with the way Goodman characterizes Carroll's critics. They did jump to conclusions -- almost as if they wanted to believe the worst of her -- and they were played for fools by the propaganda Carroll's kidnappers forced her to say. Anyone who takes the first public utterances of a just-released hostage at face value -- especially when those utterances seem to be the opposite of what the former hostage would be expected to feel -- has no capacity to imagine what it means to be held captive and threatened with death for three months; has no sense of compassion or empathy; and most certainly is severely lacking in brainpower.

But instead of laying the blame for this extraordinarily cruel and mean-spirited response to Jill Carroll's initial statements where it belongs -- on an array of right-wing media figures, which included but was by no means limited to bloggers -- Goodman dumps the entire load on the blogosphere. She does mention one non-blogger source of poison -- Don Imus's executive producer, Bernard McGuirk -- but she makes it clear that she sees McGuirk as one nasty individual, while toxic, go-for-the-jugular, unprofessional personal attacks are in the very nature of blogging.

The blogosphere was not the only source of pollution. Indeed, the oil-spill prize goes to Don Imus's producer, Bernard McGuirk, who described this young reporter as ''the kind of woman who would wear one of those suicide vests. . . . She may be carrying Habib's baby." But in the short, volatile, and powerful life of the Web log, the Jill Carroll debacle may be a turning point.

Web logs have been around barely a half-dozen years. The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates that a quarter of Internet users now read blogs and 9 percent write one. Most of the 28 million blogs are online diaries such as those on MySpace. But there is also the feisty political corner of this zone.

The political bloggers first flexed their muscle in 2002 when they trumped the MSM -- blogspeak for Mainstream Media -- by forcing Trent Lott out of the Senate speakership after he toasted the good old segregated days of Strom Thurmond. In 2004, they proved the power of the Internet as a great equalizer when they confronted the house of CBS and Dan Rather over Bush's military records.

Two years later, we have -- ready, fire, aim -- the Jill Carroll affair. These attacks raise the question of what bloggery is going to be when it grows up. An Internet op-ed page? Or a polarized, talk-radio food fight?

And then there is Howard Kurtz. Media Matters for America outs him for hypocrisy in a piece dated April 3:

On the April 2 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, host Howard Kurtz noted that Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll, released on March 30 by Iraqi insurgents who had held her for 82 days, had "been criticized and had her motives questioned by skeptics, critics, and conspiracy theorists here at home." The criticism in question concerned a pair of video interviews that showed her praising the insurgency, criticizing the Bush administration, and asserting that her captors had not harmed or threatened her. In an April 1 statement, Carroll renounced these remarks and said that she had been under duress when she made them. But in calling attention to the earlier criticism of Carroll as the work of "skeptics, critics, and conspiracy theorists," Kurtz seemed to have forgotten that he had joined numerous right-wing media figures in questioning the motives behind her statements.

Here is Kurtz's March 31 WaPo column in which he wrote, in a particularly oily way, how "odd" it was that Carroll said good things about her captors in her first post-release interview:

This is a courageous young woman.

I must say, though, that I found her first interview yesterday rather odd. Carroll seemed bent on giving her captors a positive review, going on about how well they treated her, how they gave her food and let her go to the bathroom. And they never threatened to hit her. Of course, as we all saw in those chilling videos, they did threaten to kill her. And they shot her Iraqi translator to death.

Why make a terrorist group who put her family and friends through a terrible three-month ordeal sound like they were running a low-budget motel chain?

Now perhaps this is unfair, for there is much we do not know. We don't know why Carroll was kidnapped and why she was abruptly released. She says she doesn't either, but surely she must have gotten some clues about her abductors' outlook and tactics during her 82-day captivity. Maybe she was just shell-shocked right after being let go. Maybe she won't feel comfortable speaking out until she's back on American soil.

As my colleagues in Baghdad point out, when that interview was taped, Carroll was still in the custody of a Sunni political party with ties to the insurgency. It may have just made sense for her to be especially cautious. And they tell me that Carroll did cry -- off camera -- when the subject of her murdered translator came up. Still, people are buzzing because her taped remarks have been played over and over again on television. I hope she'll be able to share a fuller account of her ordeal soon.

Jill Carroll is courageous, but her first interview was odd. She cried about her translator, but she did it off-camera. Perhaps this is unfair, but people are buzzing about it.

Can you get any more sanctimoniously snide?

As Editor & Publisher makes clear, it would definitely have made sense to cut Carroll some slack, because all the "maybe's" and "we do not know's" and "perhaps's" and "may have's" in Kurtz's column turned out to be spot on:

Not surprisingly, an article in the Christian Science Monitor revealed later Friday that making the first video was a condition of her release and did not represent her beliefs.

Carroll's captors approached her the night before her release, saying "they had one final demand as the price of her freedom: She would have to make a video praising her captors and attacking the United States," the Monitor said. According to her father, Jim Carroll, "she felt compelled to make statements strongly critical of President Bush and his policy in Iraq."

In another interview he suggested that three machine guns had been trained on her.

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