Don (I assume Don Arthur) has kindly posted some useful links in my comment facility that add to our knowledge of London Daily Telegraph pundit Mark Steyn's story about alleged American Muslim foreknowledge of September 11. The links certainly demonstrate that the allegation, about a Brooklyn high school student making a comment about the Twin Towers no longer being there in a week's time, has some substance (though only in the sense that some such statement appears to have been made). But in all other respects, Don's information creates even more problems for Steyn.
Don provides a link to a 10 September published story by sacked journalist Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, from which Steyn clearly lifted his entire op-ed piece. The only thing Steyn added was a 'spin' which argued that the allegations outlined by Shapiro somehow demonstrated that the mainstream media were refusing to cover such stories out of a misplaced sense of political correctness. Now, I don't know about the attenuated ethics of journalism, but in any other arena stealing someone else's published story without attribution is plagiarism (not just verging on it). Mentioning Shapiro as the source of just one of the allegations Steyn reproduces isn't enough. Steyn should have made clear that his entire story was just a repackaging of Shapiro's one published just 4 days earlier.
Secondly, perusal of Shapiro's story lends no support at all to Steyn's 'spin' that mainstream media were refusing to cover the story out of misplaced political correctness. In fact, Shapiro points out that several other media outlets picked up his story in the days following its first publication in October 2001 (viz Daily News, New York Post, NBC Today Show, MSNBC). Other media outlets also wanted to follow up on the story.However, as Shapiro explains "Unfortunately, no one from the school or police department was authorized to grant them an on-camera interview, which made it difficult for them to go forward". So the lack of further follow-up coverage had nothing to do with 'political correctness', as Steyn well knew. It arose from the simple fact that there was nothing new to report.
Nevertheless, it appears (according to Shapiro himself) that Insight magazine retained Shapiro to keep investigating the story, and his 10 September story is the result. Did Insight get its money's worth? Does his story add anything to the earlier one? I suggest not. Shapiro adds a completely unsubstantiated story about a middle eastern boy at a Bronx school who, after the Twin Towers fell, big-noted himself to school-mates by 'warning' them not to travel on buses in Manhattan. Clearly that doesn't show any foreknowledge of anything at all. Shapiro claims that the boy had said his 'warning' was based on a general warning circulating at his mosque the week before. He also reports a NYPD officer confirming that the claim was investigated, but fails to report what (if anything) came of the investigation. In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that no-one besides Shapiro (and now his faithful copyist Steyn) regarded this as sufficiently substantial to merit coverage. There were literally thousands of unsubstantiated urban rumours of this sort floating around in the wake of 9/11.
The second additional allegation added by Shapiro in his Insight article concerned a 6th grade student in Jersey City who supposedly warned his teacher (on the day before 9/11) to "to stay away from lower Manhattan because something bad was going to happen". This story was reported in the mainstream media at the time (viz New York Times, Daily News, Jersey Journal), and labelled "unsubstantiated" (as it clearly was). Again, so much for Steyn's assertion of politically correct censorship by the mainstream media. The only thing Shapiro's Insight article adds to the picture is a confirmation that the story was 'investigated' by police and FBI. However, again, Shapiro reports nothing about the result (if any) of investigations. I would imagine that all such reports were investigated in the wake of 9/11: it would be very surprising if that were not the case. So, does the fact that an already-reported allegation was investigated provide any substantiation of that allegation, or even a basis for recycling the story a year later? Not by any responsible journalist, I would have thought.
The only other new 'fact' reported in Shapiro's Insight story was a suggestion that "according to students, many of their Arab-American peers were seen taking photographs of the crumbling twin towers from New Utrecht on Sept. 11." But how many students? And how unusual is it for students to have cameras at school? In these days of cheap digital cameras, and teenagers swapping images across the Internet, I suggest it isn't very unusual at all. My 14 year old daughter does it. If a dramatic event happened at school when she had her camera with her, I imagine she would take shots of it. It hardly of itself suggests foreknowledge. Moreover, Shapiro's very next sentence suggests that the 'students' who are the source of this allegation may in fact be just one student. His next sentence reads ""Don't you think it's strange so many of them happened to take their cameras to school that particular day?" one student asked me. "
In the hands of Steyn, this allegation (insubstantial as it is) turns into an unsourced assertion that "teachers at schools within sight of the World Trade Centre report that, as the towers burned, a lot of Muslim pupils were taking pictures: it seemed odd that so many of them happened to have brought their cameras to school on that particular day." Thus, Shapiro's claim of students (and possibly only one student) at a single school becomes teachers at schools (plural). Has Steyn done his own research and found more widespread sources for the suggestion, or is he just taking poetic licence with Shapiro's story? I won't be holding my breath waiting for him to tell us.
It seems that MSNBC has now (again) picked up the story in the wake of Steyn's op-ed piece. In contrast to Shapiro's shabby piece (and Steyn's even shabbier rip-off of it), the MSNBC article deals only with the Brooklyn teenager story. Clearly MSNBC concluded (as I demonstrated above) that the other allegations in the Shapiro/Steyn story were too insubstantial to be worthy of coverage. Moreover, MSNBC reported a police officer as saying that “this is the only case we know of where someone said the World Trade Center was coming down prior to it happening". Contrast that with the much more sinister but totally unsubstantiated impression both Shapiro and Steyn have sought to create.
MSNBC suggest (not ureasonably) that the Brooklyn schoolboy's statement may be explained by (1) clairvoyance; (2) coincidence; or (3) real foreknowledge via rumours. Let's eliminate (1). We certainly can't eliminate (3) as a possibility, but without more this certainly couldn't be regarded as providing substantiation of the proposition that New York's Muslim community had foreknowledge of 9/11. However, surely (2) is a rather more likely explanation. It isn't exactly uncommon for teenagers, especially troubled and insecure kids in a new environment (the family were said to be relatively new arrivals either from Palestine or Pakistan - the reports conflict in this regard) to big-note themselves and make bellicose statements to bolster their egoes. Moreover, if the Twin Towers were so visible from the boy's school (as it seems they were), and given their status as previous targets of Islamic terrorism, it would be a natural subject for an idle teenage boast. That is exactly the explanation his brother gave, according to Shapiro: "From the angle we were looking at, you could only see one of the trade towers because one was hidden behind the other," the older brother told [Shapiro]. "My brother likes attention, and so he called me over and pointed out the window toward the tower. He smiled at me and said, 'Do you know why you can only see one building? Because I blew the other one up.'"
The fact is that we don't know what (if anything) lay behind the boy's comment, which was well-reported at the time. Nor do we know anything about what any FBI investigation may have found. What we do know is that it provides no reasonable basis for Mark Steyn's op-ed rip-off. Shabby journalism is far too kind a description for Mark Steyn's effort.
Update - I see Bernard Slattery has found some material on Mr. Shapiro's journalistic background, which goes a long way to explain the manifestly dodgy nature of his Insight article, on which Mark Steyn's rip-off was cloesly based. I wonder wheher it will stop right-wing ozbloggers (including Slatts himself) from regarding Steyn as a credible source. Somehow I doubt it. I reckon scepticism about everything is a good place to start. I'm not saying I always achieve it, because it's impossible to check everything. But I have always found that a good signal to switch on the bullshit meter is that when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.