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September 23 Pioneer Press Defamed Khalid al-Mihammadi

by Rick Giombetti Friday, Sep. 28, 2001 at 7:25 PM
rickjgio@speakeasy.org Seattle

Any face with an Arab name attached to it will do in the rush to find Arab suspects in the September 11 highjackings and terror attacks.

I noticed that the September 23 St. Paul Pioneer Press had published the names and photos of the FBI's official list of "suspects" in the September 11 terror attacks while waiting for a Seattle bound Northwest Airlines flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. I bought a copy of the paper, read the front page feature article about the "suicide hijackers" and then wrote an editorial titled, "Despite Reports Of Two 'Suicide Hijackers' Being Alive And Well, The Pioneer Press Publishes Names And Photos Of Them Anyway."

In my editorial I argued that the publication of such a factually unreliable list from a government agency was an example of incredibly bad editorial judgment on the part of the editors at the Press. The article's authors, identified as Washington Bureau reporters Tom Infield, Mark Fazlollah and Daniel Rubin, and the editors at the Press clearly took what the FBI had spoon fed them and didn't bother to fact check any of it. At the time I wrote my editorial I noted that the names of at least two of the "suicide hijackers" had already been reported as alive and well, one in Morocco by the Associated Press (this was admitted in the 43rd paragraph of the Press article) and another a Saudi national by the Independent. Meanwhile, a day after the Press feature on the suspected "suicide hijackers" had been published Saudi ambassador to Great Britain, Ghazi al-Gosaibi, mentioned in a BBC interview that seven of the names appearing on the FBI list were living Saudi nationals.

There is another reason why the Press should not have published the names and photos from the FBI suspect list I did not mention in my op-ed. What if the one or more of the sixteen photos published on the front page were of living people who had never been passengers on any of the flights that were hijacked? Well, it turns out that one of the photos of a Flight 77 "suspect," identified on the front page of the Press as Khalid al-Midhar, is a living Saudi national who was obviously not a passenger on the plane that was deliberately crashed into the Pentagon.

The photo in question appears on the right side of the Press feature about the S11 hijacking suspects. The young man appearing in the photo is identified as computer programmer Kalid al-Mihammadi, 22, in a September 27 Arab News article by Badr Almotawa. Al-Mihammadi has never piloted a plane in his life and he received the shock of his life when he saw his photo among the list of FBI "suspects" in the S11 hijackings. The only time al-Mihammadi has spent in the United States was the nine months he spent studying English at two language institutes in Indiana and Florida. Now al-Mihammadi must spend much of his time explaining to family and friends in both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. that he had nothing to do with the S11 hijackings and terror attacks.

What this means should be clear enough. By publishing al-Mihammadi's photo on the front page September 23 the Press has clearly defamed this innocent young man. The only way out of this kind of accusation for the Press would be if all of the photos handed to them by the FBI were passengers on the hijacked plane. If it turned out that some of the names attached to the photos happened to be aliases used by the suspected hijackers, then the Press could argue that they hadn't defamed anybody. No harm, no foul the argument goes. It is still an exercise in bad editorial judgment to publish these names when they are in doubt, but it could still be argued that what the Press published wasn't defamatory. But a picture is worth a thousand words, as that old saying goes.

I stated this in my first op-ed and I will state it here again: The reason why the Press went ahead and published the FBI suspect list was primarily because of our society's bigoted attitudes towards Arabs and/or Muslims. I don't doubt for a second that a group of Europeans or European Americans wouldn't be getting treated this way if they were suspects in the S11 hijackings and terror attacks. When it was learned that Timothy McVeigh was the prime suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing, I didn't notice the FBI circulating the photos of young white men with military style crew cuts without verifying if they had any connection to the events of April 19, 1995 in Oklahoma City. I remember an artist's sketch of a bombing suspect being circulated, but the FBI didn't start circulating photos of who they thought this phantom suspect might have been. Yet this has been the case with the investigation into the S11 hijackings and terror attacks. The media has been eager to publicize whatever the FBI spoon feeds them and

not much, if any, fact checking about these names and photos is happening.

I maintain that this is happening with the S11 terror attacks because the media in our society has viciously stereotyped all Arab and/or Muslims as terrorists or suspected terrorists. There is no standard of evidence required when Arabs and/or Muslims are accused of engaging in terrorism. Any photo of a man with dark hair, brown skin, Middle Eastern headdress and an Arab sounding name will do for a suspect. Getting one letter in a name wrong, as in the case with, say, Johnson and Johnston, can lead to a case of mistaken identity when reporting a criminal case. Yet checking the spelling accuracy of the names of Arab suspects in a crime as monsterous as the S11 terror attacks didn't seem to be a high priority for the Press either. I noticed that some of the names on the FBI list were misspelled as they were published by the Press. It's the paper's way of saying, "What difference does it make, all of these damn Arab names all sound the same anyway?".

In this sense the bad editorial judgment of the Press was not just a defamation of an individual. It was a defamation of an entire community. The Press not only owes Khalid al-Mihammadi an apology. The paper owes the entire Arab and Muslim communities of the Twin Cities area an apology for its defamatory feature published on September 23.

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