Is this bad journalism?

A non-China quickie during a workbreak. Seconds ago this article in the NY Times jumped out at me for its dramatic headline, and then for the big hole in the opening grafs.

4 Accused of Bombing Plot at Bronx Synagogues

Four men were arrested Wednesday night in what the authorities said was a plot to bomb two synagogues in the Bronx and shoot down military planes at an Air National Guard base in Newburgh, N.Y.

The men, all of whom live in Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City, were arrested around 9 p.m. after planting what they believed to be bombs in cars outside the Riverdale Temple and the nearby Riverdale Jewish Center, officials said. But the men did not know the bombs, provided by an informant with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were fake.

The arrests capped what officials described as a “painstaking investigation” that began in June 2008 involving an F.B.I. agent who had been told by a federal informant of the men’s desire to attack targets in America. As part of the plot, the men intended to fire stinger missiles at military aircraft at the base, which is at Stewart International Airport, officials said.

Alright. We all know the inverted pyramid of journalism, the importance of who, what, where, when, how and, if possible, why. All of that is supposed to be delivered upfront, hopefully in the lede. Not here. The immediate question I had the second I saw the headline was, Who planned the bombing and what was their motivation? Were these Islamists or skinheads or an enraged former employee or…? But to find out, you have to look a full ten grafs down:

They are all Muslim, a law enforcement official said.

Mr. Cromitie, who is of Afghan descent, had told the informant that he was upset about the war in Afghanistan and that that he wanted to “do something to America.” Cromitie stated “the best target” — the World Trade Center — “was hit already,” according to the complaint.

The point isn’t about Muslims or Jews. It’s about what appears to be the media’s insistence on tiptoeing around what they see as sensitive topics. But to bury in the 10th graf some of the most revealing and useful information, stuff readers expect to see in the first, is inexplicable. I’m trying to imagine a report on the first arrests made for the September 11 attacks, but not mentioning Al Qaeda or the suspect’s home countries until midway into the story. Impossible. In this story, the suspects are simply referred to generically as “the men,” without a word of background, until halfway through.

This is not the way they taught us at NYU Journalism School.

(Note, I use a question mark in the title because maybe it really is good journalism and I’m just not seeing it. A part of me says the NYT couldn’t be so amateurish, and I must be missing something.)

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

This, in my opinion, is the real buried information: “the suspects wanted to do something but had no weapons or explosives — and described the operation as a sting with a cooperator within the group.”
In other words, the feds encouraged these losers, planted ideas in their heads, offered a plan and material, and arrested them when they agreed. There would never have been a crime otherwise, just some unhappy immigrants. This is too close to entrapment for comfort.

May 21, 2009 @ 2:51 pm | Comment

Interesting perspective Boo. I didn’t catch that at all, because I was so busy looking for the “who did this and why” information. So maybe we have another of those cases, like the alleged liquid explosives on airplanes hysteria, that were more about the active imaginations of investigators than actual criminal activity. Maybe; need to learn more before being definitive.

May 21, 2009 @ 2:55 pm | Comment

Chronos n’aurait pu jamais deviner
Que son petit fils finirait par l’dévorer;
Darius, quand il allât en Scythie,
Ne sut non plus que ses hardis adversaires
Allaient lui donner une belle leçon de chorégraphie ;
Aussi bien je vous dis :
Comment pouvaient-ils nos journalistes en avance savoir
Qu’notre astucieux et brave Richard
Allait découvrir leur moins qu’honnêtes méthodes ?

May 21, 2009 @ 3:29 pm | Comment

There are a lot of strange things when it comes to the use of Muslim.

When NYT talks about the Uigher detainees in Gitmo, they are called Chinese Muslims. Only inside an article you learn that these Muslims are actually Uighers. I guess the NYT thinks that these are innocent good people, so identify them by their religion is OK.

However when NYT and the Western media in general talk about Tibetans, they are never referred as Chinese Buddhists. Doing so would classify Tibetans as Chinese and the (biased) Western media are unwilling to accept this fact.

May 21, 2009 @ 3:58 pm | Comment

In South Africa we sometimes get news bulletins where the police ask the public to be on the lookout for, e.g., a tall man, late thirties, wearing a denim jacket, who speaks with a slight stutter. And you sit there and go: IS HE #^%&#^%& BLACK OR WHITE?

May 21, 2009 @ 6:10 pm | Comment

@serve the people
in stories about tibet, their tibetanness is the issue under contention. in stories about uyghers in gitmo their chineseness is at issue. i.e. the fact that if they return to their home land their home land would probably execute them. the media is biased in so far as it doesn’t choose your side yet, until the matter is settled. calling tibetans chinese buddhists is what YOUR side wants, and the media is not supposed to take sides.

May 21, 2009 @ 6:17 pm | Comment

I just got this story from a South African Press Association feed (it was wrongly filed under “domestic”) and there is NO mention that they are Muslim, only that Cromitie (one of the accused) “was upset about the war [in Afghanistan] and that many Muslim people were being killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by U.S. military forces…”

I think this reporter is in fact trying to evoke suspicions of entrapment. He adds the old smear: “The FBI didn’t immediately return a telephone message seeking information on whether the men had lawyers.”

May 21, 2009 @ 6:36 pm | Comment

Richard, have you seen this amazing art from China linked from andrew sullivan’s blog

http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/featured/li-weis-astounding-action-art/3076

May 21, 2009 @ 9:29 pm | Comment

I actually watched this crap in the news last night as ‘breaking news.’ More fear mongering by Western media if you ask me.

May 21, 2009 @ 9:42 pm | Comment

Journalism online is different from that in paper format. When you have newspaper, you have limited space so that you have to put all the important information upfront in case that your article is editted or cut somehow to fit the space. So if your article is cut, the most important information is still contained in the article becasue when, who, why, what…all these information is put upfront.

In the internet age, there is no limit on space. You can write news like a novel. Keep the most important information in the middle and at the end. This will make sure that readers will stick to your website a little longer. Advertisers would love this.

May 21, 2009 @ 10:54 pm | Comment

It’s not entrapment if they sought the informant out, which is how it has been described so far. If the informant sought them out, encountered resistance from them and, only after repeatedly harassing them to join in the plot, the suspects finally agreed, then you would have a case of entrapment.

Not that there may not have been entrapment. But, based on what has been leaked so far, assuming it’s true, it wouldn’t be entrapment. If there’s grounds for it, I’m sure their lawyer will bring it up.

But, yeah, the part of the story that bothers me is the tone. It’s very much fear based. Yet, if one were to lay out the facts as described in a linear manner, one would see that the suspects were simply never in the position to harm anyone with their plot. Thus, you’d think such a story would be written from an empowering angle. After all, it appears the system, in this particular case, “kept us safe” without resorting to breaking the law, which is a good headline nowadays.

May 21, 2009 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

Sounds like four Gilligans.

May 21, 2009 @ 11:41 pm | Comment

Michael, most unusual stuff, thanks.

Eris, interesting take. I was hoping the “kept us safe” media scares would die in the Age of Obama.

Pug, I agree it’s fear mongering. But don’t believe that that’s unique to US journalism. Nobody does fear like the Chinese media, which has created a cottage industry out of convincing people of the horrors of democracy, the very concept of which can cause all of Deng’s great work and all of China’s progress to date to disintegrate in seconds. And this story is like the bunny on TV that keeps going and going and going.

May 21, 2009 @ 11:46 pm | Comment

“However when NYT and the Western media in general talk about Tibetans, they are never referred as Chinese Buddhists. Doing so would classify Tibetans as Chinese and the (biased) Western media are unwilling to accept this fact.” Tibetan Buddhism is not Chinese Buddhism. And the Tibetans were conquered recently, they aren’t native Chinese, that’s why they aren’t IDed this way.

May 21, 2009 @ 11:49 pm | Comment

For some reason it reminds me of in “1984″, O’Brien enticed Winston with Goldstein’s book. He is proved guilty of “criminal thoughts”.

May 22, 2009 @ 4:33 am | Comment

Independent of the journalistic holes in the story thank goodness that we caught them. I’ve never been a fan of the times, and it seems like the more papers that close down the sloppier the reporting gets.

May 22, 2009 @ 9:03 pm | Comment

I came to the same conclusion as boo. This is the second time, remember the guys in Florida who were arrested for planning a bomb in Chicago, it was an idea planted by the FBI with FBI equipment. Makes me sick, I wonder how many “sting” operations are started and fail.

May 22, 2009 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

You are spot on, but at least in the US, our papers still mention the group that is behind the attack, even when it is Muslim extremists. I have heard that most newspapers in Europe completely ignore it.

May 26, 2009 @ 9:33 am | Comment

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