Aside from the murderous thugs and radicals who attacked American targets in Cairo and Benghazi, the chief villain in the recent Middle Eastern turmoil wasn't Mitt Romney, or President Obama, or some unidentified flunkie at the American embassy in Cairo, or even the shadowy would-be filmmaker known as "Sam Bacile " who idiotically inflamed Muslim sensibilities with his singularly shoddy work. It was, rather, the all-powerful imperative for instant response in our 24-hour news cycle that added immeasurably—and needlessly—to the confusion, embarrassment and pain surrounding the tragic incidents of September 11, 2012.
As events unfolded, someone connected to the U.S. embassy in Egypt posted an unfortunate statement that condemned disrespectful treatment of any and all religions, thereby offering implicit justification for the enraged protestors who stormed the American compound. Initial press accounts reported the comments on the embassy website as a response to the attack on American sovereign territory, which created a deeply disturbing impression: diplomatic officials seemed to express sympathy for the wounded feelings of Muslim rioters, condemning the pathetic film that purportedly set them off without condemning their violent actions or their assault on the American flag. A number of commentators promptly condemned the embassy statement based on the impression that the bland remarks followed the extremist attack, rather than preceding it. On that basis, I denounced the embassy message on my syndicated radio on Tuesday afternoon and Mitt Romney reportedly framed his own initial reaction.
Only later did the truth emerge: the first embassy statement (posted, reportedly without the approval of the U.S. State Department or the Obama administration) came before the storming of the U.S. compound in Benghazi in a lame effort to avoid trouble rather than as a retroactive response to that trouble after it had already occurred. The statement still seems weak and ill-advised, but when the context finally became clear the pronouncement looked far less "disgraceful" than Mitt Romney insisted in his Tuesday night comments.
Bad timing and confusion over context also contributed to making Romney's own remarks seem far more insensitive, inappropriate and callously self-serving than they actually were. Because he emphasized a weak and uncertain first reaction to the crisis, rather than expressing sympathy for the bereaved families of the fallen heroes who perished in Benghazi, he looked at first like a cheap, grandstanding politician attempting to exploit a dark moment on the sacred date of September 11th . One listener to my radio show indignantly commented via e-mail: "The jerk didn't even wait till the bodies were cold before he rushed to the media to score a few meaningless points against Obama."
But in fact, Romney issued his initial statement on September 11th and asked the news media to wait until after midnight to publish—and before the announcement of the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya. He didn't actually show disrespect to the dead, because at the time he made his first comments he had no idea that anyone had died. Even those who fervently condemned the candidate's comments must acknowledge that his statement would have seemed far less questionable had no one perished in the radical raid. In his blog the next morning, after the full extent of the tragedy became clear, Romney devoted four of his five paragraphs to expressing condolences, determination and solidarity, while still lamenting the “mixed signals” from the Obama administration.
But the worst mixed signals involved the wildly irresponsible first press reports about the miserable movie that purportedly provoked the North African rage, with deeply damaging distortions in the hasty efforts to highlight the identity and purposes of the people behind the picture.
The crucial Associated Press story that first named the filmmaker as one "Sam Bacile" identified him as an "Israeli Jew" and “real estate developer” who had secured $5 million in funding for his Mohammad-trashing project through generous contributions from "100 Jewish donors." The story also quoted Mr. Bacile as calling Islam "a cancer" and saying he had always expected an angry response.
In fact, "Sam Bacile" probably doesn't exist or else is some sort of composite character hiding behind a pseudonym. The Israeli embassy checked its meticulous records and found no trace of any citizen, from the present or the past, who matched Bacile’s name or description. In Southern California’s huge Israeli-American community (numbering close to 200,000), no one stepped forward to confirm knowledge of the mysterious movie man. Moreover, in interviews following the AP report, Steve Klein, a self-described "militant Christian" who claims he served as a consultant on the Innocence of Muslims film, now insists "Bacile" (reportedly in hiding) isn't Israeli, and isn't Jewish. The original AP story perplexingly declared that the fugitive filmmaker expressed concern “for family members who live in Egypt” - another powerful indication that he's not Jewish, given the devastating liquidation of the once thriving Cairo Jewish community some 60 years ago and intense persecution since that time. The two best-known promoters of the movie are, in fact, Christian activists: Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones and Morris Sadik, a confrontational leader of the Egyptian-American Coptic Christian community.
Despite the dubious nature of the AP story (filed by 33-year-old journalist Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, who maintains an on-line profile at the Iranian-American Heritage Foundation of Southern California) the anti-Semitic references to “100 Jewish donors” and the fingering of the writer-director as “an Israeli Jew” had circulated around the world before anyone seriously questioned them. Leaders of the respected Ramadan Foundation in the United Kingdom, for instance, cited the alleged “Jewish donors” behind an anti-Muslim movie to demand that the Jewish community in general must denounce the film and insist that it be banned.
What common element connects all of these befuddling and embarrassing episodes of misinformation, misunderstanding and disastrously bad timing?
They each developed through the desperate desire of all media outlets, political candidates and even government officials to stay "ahead of the curve" and to rush to respond to any reported development even before the most salient facts had been reliably reported. Rather than offering apologies for specific mistakes, all public figures should privately but powerfully resolve to avoid all temptation to offer instantaneous reaction to stories which remain confused and contradictory, and to pause and consider even when immediate comment might confer a significant edge. The insatiable news cycle with its never-ending chatter demands constant care and feeding, but hesitation remains a wiser policy than haste. There’s more risk in prematurely inserting yourself into an evolving story without full comprehension or context than in patiently allowing the details unfold or shunning comment altogether. It's far better to be late but accurate in reacting to some dramatic development than to rush to the front of the line as first but misinformed.