This entry has been eating at me for a couple of weeks now, ever since news of Eric Rudolph's guilty pleas in a string of terrorist attacks across the South in the mid 1990s was major news for about half a day here in the US. A bunch of things have always troubled me about the media coverage of Rudolph's story. I'll address them one at a time.
Double Standards in Effect
Eric Rudolph is a Christian fundamentalist. Yet the same media outlets that love to point out when a terrorist is Muslim almost universally failed to note Rudolph's extremist Christian worldview. I ran a Google News search for "Eric Rudolph" and turned up about 4,100 results. But when you add the word "Christian" to that search, and the results drop to just 81 stories.
By way of comparison, a search for "Zacarias Moussaoui" -- the so-called 20th 9/11 hijacker -- already garners about 3,870 results (his guilty plea is far more recent), but add terms like "Muslim," "Islam" and "Arab" to the search, and you find about 83 stories noting Moussaoui's religion or ethnicity. And I would venture a guess that if you asked the average American the extreme version of which religious ideology drove the 9/11 hijackers, vs. which one drove the Olympic bomber, the gap would be drastic. In fact, probably a number of people would say Rudolph was Muslim...
Take these same searches to Nexis.com -- the high end facility that indexes major print media. I scanned the previous month for ALL NEWS, ENGLISH, and here's what turned up...
Eric Rudolph (OR Eric Robert Rudolph): 754
AND (terrorism or terrorist): 287
AND (christian OR christianity): 121
Zacarias Moussaoui: 605
AND (terrorism or terrorist): 542
AND (muslim OR moslem OR islam OR islamic OR arab): 148
Adopting the Perpetrator's Preferred Language
The second thing that should stand out about the coverage of Rudolph's treachery is the acceptance of the terrorist's language. Rudolph sees the women's health clinics he bombed as "abortion clinics." For about a third of the US population, that means "murder factories." But the places he attacked were health care facilities that happened to provide abortions as one of many services.
Remember those 3,870 stories Google News found about Eric Rudolph? Well, about 3,430 of them use the terms "abortion clinic" or "abortion clinics." Query instead for terms like "women's clinic" or "health clinic" and... drumroll please... about 68 results. Maybe Rudolph won, after all...
Care to Read a Manifesto, Anyone?
The very same news media that refuse to even ponder the complex motivations behind terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists perpetrated against Western targets -- let alone print in full the communiques of terror groups -- couldn't help but publish extensive excerpts from the hate-filled statement Rudolph released in conjunction with his remorseless guilty pleadings. It's really amazing that the Associated Press and others chose to run significant promotion of Rudolph's manifesto, without comment. Google News finds at least 77 online news sources that published the AP release.
Can you imagine the response from the Religious Right if the AP were to begin publishing excerpts of Al Qaeda statements? Any time the slightest portion of an Islamist terrorist video or communique runs in the Arab or Western media, the liberal and conservative establishments here in the US go virtually berserk, worried that it will inspire more such attacks.
The Associated Press was good enough to report the effects of its choice to publish the extremist manifesto, running an article the next day noting in its lead:
Abortion clinics around the country are bracing for attacks after Olympic bomber Eric Rudolph issued his manifesto justifying the use of violence to stop "the worst massacre in human history."
Oh, boy. Rudolph's words feature prominently in the lead of the story. The AP is basically saying here, "Hey, in case you didn't hear yesterday, abortion = massacre." And instead of pointing out that Rudolph believes stopping the "massacre" justifies murder, or using a term like "rationalizing" (which implies uncertainty) instead of "justifying," the AP just tells us straight out that Rudolph's manifesto serves as objective justification for murder.
Am I being overly analytical and overly harsh toward the AP? Well, perhaps. But I am just applying the same standards we apply in our own work here at TNS. Is that really too much to ask?