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SPEAKING OF HOAXES…What happened at Shoney’s? The corps didn’t know. So they told you the story they liked:


TELLING THE STORY THEY LIKED: What actually happened Thursday night in that Shoney’s restaurant in Georgia? Is it possible that three young men of Middle Eastern descent made jokes about September 11? That is an obvious possibility. Is it possible that a local woman misunderstood the men’s comments? That’s an obvious possibility, too.

But on Friday night, only one possibility was fully active on our cable “news” channels. Cable’s hacks were widely assuming what they couldn’t know—that the men had conducted a “joke,” “hoax” or prank.” Almost no one considered the possibility that their comments had simply been misunderstood. This led to a wonderful Connie Chung moment on CNN, the Fox wannabe channel.

Chung was speaking with Carlos Alvarez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department. Alvarez—more diligent and more honest than our millionaire tribunes—challenged a conclusion which was being widely drawn.

“I think it’s premature at this point in time to call it a prank or a hoax,” he said. “I have heard the word hoax and prank being used,” he later added. “And after 27 years in law enforcement, I can tell you that it’s kind of premature to use those terms. I am sure—now, the FBI is conducting the investigation…There is a lot of work to be done, a lot of people to talk to, and a lot of things to examine. So let time run its course.”

What made this moment so comedically rich? As Alvarez spoke, CNN was running a banner headline across the bottom of its screen. “PRANK LED TO SHUTDOWN OF I-76,” the text said. To state the obvious, Chung’s producers had no way of knowing whether a “prank” had occurred at Shoney’s. But there the pleasing headline was, offering the world a preferred account—in which members of an undesirable group were assumed to have acted inappropriately.

How low is the intellectual and moral caliber of our current cable “news” corps? They seemed determined to show off their dysfunction as they spun this event Friday night. Alvarez makes—what—sixty grand? Cable’s stars make six, seven figures. What a shame—that the higher up the pay scale you go, the more you encounter hapless clowning.

ONE WHO SERVED: By the way, who is conducting a “hoax” when newsmen assume the truth of things they can’t possibly know? And just how hard can it possibly be to stick to what’s actually known? Alvarez somehow managed to do it, and so did CNN’s Aaron Brown. Here’s how Brown began his 10 P.M. Friday program:

BROWN: Good evening, everyone. It’s a bit hard to know whether we have a story or a non-story…First of all, the truth here is hard to determine. The men say they made no threats, certainly not the ones the woman said they made. And they’ll join us on the program tonight for their first real interview. The woman, as far as we know, stands by her version of events. So it comes down to a “he said, she said,” and the only thing we can say for certain is we live in edgy times.
“The truth here is hard to determine”—if you’re a newsman instead of a hack. Later on, Brown reminded us once again that it isn’t that hard to stick to what’s known. This time, John Zarrella simply assumed that a hoax had occurred. And Brown—get this—corrected him!
ZARRELLA: Authorities say they have no idea how much responding to this hoax has cost, but they will be adding it up. Authorities won’t say whether they will try to assess the men any portion of the cost of today’s event. And they won’t say whether any charges will be filed. What they do say is that, if there are any charges that they could possibly file, they would come from Georgia, where all this started. Aaron?

BROWN: Well, John, that presumes something that I’m not sure we can presume at this point, which is, in fact, that [the men] said anything. They say they didn’t; she said they did. Is there—are there any other witnesses to this, who have spoken, up to this point?

ZARRELLA: What we are hearing from police is that they, although the men were released, were not willing to say that it was all over and done with at this point. They were still looking into, quote, other things. They would not elaborate any further than that. They did say, though, that they were looking into the possibility of potentially filing some sort of charges out of Georgia, based on the fact that this may have been a hoax. But absolutely, it is as you said, Aaron, at this point, unless the police know something more they’re not telling us, it’s “he said, she said.”

In other words, Zarrella had understood, all along, that the truth of this matter wasn’t yet known. Despite that, he simply “presumed” that a hoax had occurred.

We’ve been telling you this for years—the press corps tells you the stories it likes. All over cable on Friday night, the press corps recited a much-preferred tale. By contrast, Brown showed what real reporting looks like. In doing so, he looked very lonely.

SOCRATES WARNED US ABOUT THE SEAN HANNITYS: Here was the ever-egregious Sean Hannity, assuming the truth of the tale he preferred. Several hours before his 9 P.M. program aired, the three men had denied making any inappropriate comments or jokes:

HANNITY: Joining us, Attorney Hamdi Rifai is with us. Hamdi, what is funny about joking about the terror attacks on the anniversary of 9/11, joking about the attacks and talking about another attack two days later? I think I have a pretty good sense of humor. You tell me what’s funny about that.

RIFAI: Well, I don’t think they were joking. I think the fact of the matter is that this person that sitting in the booth next to them, I believe her name is Eunice Stone, probably read into what they were saying because they looked Middle Eastern.

HANNITY: Probably—no. I—

RIFAI: But we don’t know they were joking.

HANNITY: I heard the woman this morning. And she was on our air.

RIFAI: We don’t know that they were joking. And we don’t know what she heard. We do know that she said that she heard them say September 11. We do know that she said she heard them say September 13.

HANNITY: I heard this woman this morning right here on the Fox News Channel. And she was credible. She seemed honest. She seemed heartfelt. And she said they were laughing about 9/11 and talking about another attack.

Neither Hannity nor Rifai knew whether a joke had occurred. But Hannity knew which story he liked, and he used a favorite sophist’s trick, using “credible” as a stand-in for “accurate.” So it went all Friday night, as America’s cable hacks made a joke of America’s public discourse.

ALWAYS GOOD FOR A MORDANT CHUCKLE: Brian Williams, of course, is always good for a mordant chuckle. Here’s the way he kicked things off on his 7 P.M. Friday broadcast:

WILLIAMS: Take a nation already told to be on high alert by the government, level orange, after all, then add a waitress at a Shoney’s and a few men with dark features and apparently a sense of humor to match, and that cast of characters is all it takes these days in this jittery country on a Friday the 13th to shut down a major artery and much of the east-west commerce through Florida and lead to nationwide fears that the very worst just might have been planned for today by a network of some sort of evildoers. That is the picture emerging tonight of what happened in Florida.
Shortly thereafter, Williams interviewed retired Army Colonel David McIntyre for some thoughts about how police officials had reacted. In a wondrously comic performance, McIntyre told Williams that initial reports are almost always wrong in these matters—then immediately assumed that the men had been joking. No, we haven’t done any editing:
WILLIAMS: I understand, Colonel, you have a rule number one in the reconnaissance and law enforcement business. What is that?

MCINTYRE: The first report is always wrong. It’s just too hard to get the information from a distant location back to you reported exactly the right way. And you always have to be a little leery of the first report that comes in. On the other hand, you have to respond to the first report. Look, I can’t imagine a worse time in our nation’s history to make a stupid joke, when the president of the United States has gone to the UN and said we’ve got to do something, we’re on the verge of war. We’ve had the Iraqis answer us back in a very threatening manner. We know that there is a network across the world that would be delighted to kill Americans. We know that Americans were killed just a year ago, the nation is mourning that. In the midst of all that to make a bad joke? I don’t think the authorities overreacted.

WILLIAMS: And while the following is un-PC to say these days, I heard someone in law enforcement say today, “Look, those 19 guys who did this to the United States September 11th, we know what they all looked like.” In light of that, do you buy this victimization argument on the part of the family?

MCINTYRE: No. I think that’s nonsense, and I’ll tell you why. We had a lot of examples in our airports of people making stupid jokes who were pulled out and in big trouble, who aren’t from the Mideast. We’ve had pilots pulled out of airplanes for making dumb remarks. What I’d really like is for these three guys to step forward and say, “You know what, I’m an American, too, but I made a bad mistake.”

Neither Williams nor McIntyre raised the possibility that the three men hadn’t “made a bad mistake.” But there was one silver lining to the Williams broadcast. Focussing hard on the three men’s skin color, the handsome Williams didn’t utter a word about Al Gore’s troubling, blue polo shirts.

THEY’RE USUALLY SO DEPENDABLE: On Saturday morning, some newspapers wrote accurate stories bearing accurate headlines. Many papers did the opposite, simply assuming that a “hoax” had occurred. But one of Saturday’s strangest stories ran in the “usually dependable Boston Globe.” The headline said, APPARENT BOMB HOAX CLOSES HIGHWAY. At one point, Glen Johnson wrote this:

JOHNSON: Under questioning, the men said they had made their comments because they felt that [a Shoney’s patron] was unnecessarily paying attention to them because of their ethnicity. The men were released and allowed to travel on their destination.
Johnson—a frequent offender during Campaign 2000—never gave a source for this damning claim, which flew in the face of what the three men said soon after their release on Friday afternoon. (Shortly after their release, the men denied making any inappropriate comments.) On Saturday morning, most papers reported the men’s denial. But not the usually dependable Globe! The Globe never mentioned the mens’ denial; instead, it presented a contradictory report, not giving any source for its claim. But then, what do you expect from a rag like the Globe, a mixed-up paper which offended egregiously all during Campaign 2000?