Character Assassinations by New Jersey’s Star-Ledger
The Star-Ledger’s smear of terrorism expert Steve Emerson and Arab-American Emilio Karim Dabul is a textbook case of journalistic malpractice, providing the quintessential example of what honest journalism should avoid.
On August 5, the Star-Ledger called for the removal of Dabul, a New Jersey US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office spokesperson, in part by attacking Emerson with a variety of false or misleading claims. At least three other NJ papers then published similar stories about Emerson and Dabul: WNYC (which incredibly sought comment from the Council on American-Islamic Relations — CAIR — but neither Emerson nor Dabul), NorthJersey.com, and MSN.com. Adding to the damage, La Opinion ran a similar piece in Spanish. The Hill also ran an article inspired by Star-Ledger’s August 5 article, but promptly removed it after hearing Emerson’s objections.
The Star-Ledger’s attack was severe enough for Emerson to involve his attorney, Richard Horowitz, who, on August 9, demanded that Emerson be afforded “an opportunity to respond” and submitted a letter to the editor by Emerson. The Star-Ledger published Emerson’s response on August 24.
In the interim, six New Jersey members of Congress, all Democrats, wrote a letter to ICE, demanding that Dabul be fired, claiming that he “edited and wrote for anti-Muslim hate groups,” as alleged in the Star-Ledger’s op-ed trashing Emerson.
Furthermore, the paper’s editors refused to publish Emerson’s response unless he agreed to the removal of key details.
Emerson asserted that the Star-Ledger‘s editors made no attempt to contact him or verify any of the facts assumed by the paper’s allegations, but those important points were deleted from Emerson’s response by the Star-Ledger’s editors, presumably to avoid exposing their unprofessionalism.
Similarly, Emerson’s response tried to set the record straight about the Star-Ledger‘s materially false suggestion that Emerson blamed Muslims for the 1993 Oklahoma City bombing — an allegation that he says has been “manufactured and peddled by radical Islamic groups” — but the editors deleted that as well.
Thus, the edited version of Emerson’s defense produced by the Star-Ledger’s editors effectively extended Emerson’s character assassination, while whitewashing the paper’s journalistic malfeasance.
For the sake of setting the record straight and exposing the extent of Star-Ledger’s journalistic negligence, it’s worth reviewing the many problems with the paper’s August 5 op-ed.
While the article is titled “ICE’s spokesman in N.J. has disturbing ties to hate groups,” about 30% of the actual word count is devoted to attacking Steve Emerson, a well-respected expert on the issue of Islamist terrorism. The disproportionate attention on Emerson almost suggests that the ostensible topic (an allegedly objectionable ICE spokesman) was a mere pretext to indict Emerson. Indeed, the article — at various points — viciously labels Emerson an “anti-Muslim celeb,” “a peddler of anti-Muslim lies, hyperbole and innuendo,” and “a vile guy who the SPLC and CAP consider a dangerous anti-Muslim extremist.”
But the paper’s proof for such nastiness quickly crumbles when exposed to the slightest scrutiny or research.
The Star-Ledger distorts facts to smear Emerson, falsely stating that Emerson criticized former Governor Chris Christie merely for nominating a Muslim: “In 2011, Emerson accused Gov. Chris Christie of having a ‘strange relationship with radical Islam’ after he nominated a Muslim, Sohail Mohammed, for a state judgeship.”
In fact, Emerson criticized the former governor for appointing “a longtime mouthpiece for radical Islamists,” and for embracing Hamas-supporting clerics, like convicted Hamas terrorist cleric Qatanani of Passaic County. That the Star-Ledger omitted these key details and grievously distorted such a basic fact suggests either incorrigible incompetence or maliciously motivated libel.
As additional support for its thesis that Emerson is anti-Muslim, the Star-Ledger notes that he was “one of the first to claim that lawless ‘no-go zones’ exist in Europe that non-Muslims can’t even enter, overrun by Islamist thugs enforcing Shariah law.” It is true that Emerson apologized for his mistaken characterization of Birmingham, UK. But the Star-Ledger fails to note that Germany’s political leader, Angela Merkel, admits that ‘no-go zones’ do in fact exist in Germany. So, will the Star-Ledger now label Merkel an anti-Muslim leader?
The Star-Ledger writes that Emerson “claimed before the Oklahoma City bomber was caught that the 1995 attack showed ‘a Middle Eastern trait’ because it aimed to ‘inflict as many casualties as possible.’ In fact, it was a white guy, Timothy McVeigh.” But here, too, the Star-Ledger seriously distorts the record, effectively defaming Emerson.
In an April 19, 1995 CNBC interview, Emerson gave the following reply in response to Geraldo Rivera’s question “does it [the Oklahoma City bombing] sound dreadfully familiar to you?”:
Unfortunately, the scenes are — are really reminiscent of the ’93 bombing of the World Trade Center and the [AMIA] bombing in Buenos Aries last year. Obviously, there’s no hard evidence pointing in — in terms of specific names. But I can tell you from the FBI’s perspective, they’re now saying it’s a 50:50 chance at this point, based on the circumstantial evidence they have, that it was Islamic extremists who mounted this attack.
In a CBS News interview on the same day, Emerson said, “This was done with the attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Middle Eastern trait and something that has been generally not carried out in this soil until we were rudely awakened to in 1993.” Emerson’s detractors cut the second sentence at the word “trait,” creating the false impression that Emerson was claiming that Middle Easterners are more predisposed to terror and could be blamed for the 1993 attack.
But the rest of the quote indicates that Emerson was reflecting on the characteristics of the attack and not ascribing blame. Emerson’s detractors also ignore other statements that he made in the first few days after the bombing, such as “there is no specific evidence about which groups are responsible” (CBS, April 20, 1995) and “there’s no hard evidence at this point” (NBC, April 20, 1995).
This article also confirms that Emerson’s comments about the Oklahoma attack were just his report of what FBI and other law enforcement agencies suspected in the aftermath of an attack that had some similarities to prior Islamic terrorist attacks. Indeed, the editors at Politico published an extraordinary correction to a 2015 op-ed by Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center after his article made the same false claim about Emerson.
Politico‘s correction reads: “The original version of this article misrepresented Mr. Emerson’s comments. … In fact, as the article now notes, many commentators and local and federal law enforcement focused suspicions on the possibility of Middle Eastern terrorism in the hours after the attack, up until when Timothy McVeigh was arrested. At the time, Mr. Emerson’s full comments and press interviews reflected the views of those law enforcement personnel and the reasons behind their suspicions.” The Star-Ledger article could use such a forceful correction of its own.
Finally, the Star-Ledger piece claims that “in 1997, Emerson gave Associated Press reporters what he said was an FBI dossier showing ties between Muslim American organizations and radical Islamists, which the AP concluded he had made up himself.” Emerson asserts that this allegation is baseless and was demonstrated as such in court documents. Given the Star-Ledger’s abysmal bias and/or sloppy journalism with respect to the other details about Emerson in its op-ed, and given the extensive praise that law enforcement has for Emerson’s work, it’s hard to imagine that the paper would be more accurate than Emerson on this point.
Besides the specific examples that the Star-Ledger incompetently used to make its non-case against Emerson and his think tank, the Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), the paper also marshalled the tendentious and unreliable views of the think tank Center for American Progress (CAP). The Star-Ledger points out that CAP considers the IPT part of “the Islamophobia network in America.” But the paper fails to mention that CAP has been associated with some antisemitic bloggers and writers, as noted by the Anti-Defamation League and a Washington Post columnist.
To make its case against Emerson and the IPT, the Star-Ledger also relies on the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), even though the organization’s assessment of who constitutes an anti-Muslim extremist was thoroughly discredited. Indeed, the SPLC had to remove the entire section of its website dedicated to so-called anti-Muslim extremists. The SPLC also recently had to issue a formal apology and pay millions of dollars to a Muslim reformer after wrongfully attacking him.
Another hallmark of biased and shoddy journalism is a failure to acknowledge or include facts that inconveniently contradict a certain narrative. Many government and law enforcement officials, authors, and media figures have recognized the value and importance of the work done by Emerson and the IPT, as is clear from their statements quoted on the IPT web site and on the SteveEmerson.com site. But the Star-Ledger fails to include these important facts, preferring to portray Emerson in a simplistically unfair and inaccurate way, in its unconvincing attempt to attack Dabul.
Absurdly, the Star-Ledger’s indictment against Dabul mostly amounts to guilt by association and is based on “research” that the Star-Ledger admits was “done with help from the Southern Poverty Law Center.” The Star-Ledger apparently didn’t care that the SPLC was totally discredited on the very topic on which the Star-Ledger accepted SPLC’s “research.”
Surprisingly, the Star-Ledger seems to acknowledge the weakness of its case against Dabul. The paper includes a video of Dabul and notes that it “has some reasonable stuff in it. Dabul says he is not looking for all Muslims to be profiled, and not all terrorists in the US are Muslim. He argues, rightly, that terrorism is a real problem in the Muslim world.”
And yet, the paper still chooses to find Dabul guilty by association, by emphasizing his link to Emerson: “But the bottom line is that [Dabul] is promoting Emerson, a vile guy who the SPLC and CAP consider a dangerous anti-Muslim extremist.”
The Star-Ledger also makes a bizarre statement that may reveal some of its own bias about Arabs and Muslims: “[Dabul] calls himself Arab-American, though he does not say he is Muslim.” The Star-Ledger’s statement seems to imply that anyone who identifies as an Arab-American should reveal his Muslim credentials as well. But of course, there are Arab religious minorities (Christian, Druze, etc.) who are not Muslim and plenty of Arab-Americans who were born Muslim but no longer identify as such. So why would the Star-Ledger find it necessary to highlight that an Arab-American has failed to self-identify as a Muslim? Because he has been critical of Islamists? But even self-identified Muslims who have been at least as critical of Islamists were not spared by the SPLC that the Star-Ledger so heavily relies on. The SPLC attacked Maajid Nawaz, a practicing Muslim and prominent Islamic reformer. So why exactly does the Star-Ledger expect Arabs to self-identify as Muslims?
The video of Dabul that the Star-Ledger included in its attack piece is probably the most honest part of the whole article. There, Dabul comes off as an imminently reasonable and courageous person: an Arab-American who has spoken out in support of Israel and against Islamism. He has reportedly received death threats for those views, and deserves praise and support, not the Star-Ledger-led smear campaign.
The reckless disregard for the truth demonstrated by the Star-Ledger‘s character assassinations, and their refusal to correct the record raise questions about the paper’s agenda. Why would the Star-Ledger devote about 30% of an article ostensibly about an ICE spokesman to the purpose of trashing the reputation of someone else? Why would the paper be prepared to resort to falsehood and distortion in its character assassination of Steve Emerson, and then refuse to accord him a fair opportunity to defend himself with a public response that isn’t detrimentally distorted by the editors? Why would the paper go to such lengths to attack a brave and decent Arab-American like Dabul?
The Star-Ledger has already done quite a bit of damage, but it can still issue a correction and an apology, in the hope that the other newspapers follow suit, as well as the six House Democrats who followed the Star-Ledger’s lead in attacking Dabul.
Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nuclear weapons and other geostrategic issues in the Middle East. He has published extensively on the Middle East and national security issues.