By Michael Miner

Bias Detector

Nothing tops off a mystery like a nifty revelation that explains everything, even if it doesn’t make sense. Sherlock Holmes solves a murder because a dog didn’t bark. Sometimes dogs just don’t feel like barking, but there’s no place for those dogs in detective fiction. A bomb goes off at the Olympics in Atlanta, and the media are sure it’s a lumpy security guard who presented himself as a hero. A federal building is blown up, and the pieces fit as soon as the hand of Arab terrorists is presumed.

What brought down EgyptAir flight 990? Ali Abunimah doesn’t know, but the point he’s making is that he knows he doesn’t know. He hasn’t argued that the idea of a suicidal Arab pilot steering the plane into the ocean is unthinkable; he’s argued that it isn’t credible simply because people find it easy to think, “I wouldn’t put it past them.” As he says on his Web site, “What disturbs me is the easy association being made between an Arabic, Islamic prayer and a criminal act, as if the two naturally belong together.”

Because he’s not rushing to judgment, Abunimah can focus on curious specifics. “First we were told that someone said on the tape ‘I have made my decision,'” he E-mailed everyone on his far-flung list. “Later we learned from the FBI that this phrase did not exist. Now, out of the blue, we hear that the suspect phrase [Tawakalt ala Allah, or “I put my trust in God”] was actually spoken not once but anywhere between ten and fourteen times, depending on which ‘sources’ you choose to believe. How could this ‘fact’ not have been leaked up to now, considering that so much else–even falsehoods–were being leaked?” What Abunimah was coming to suspect wasn’t simple confusion arising from mistranslation or cultural differences, but a turf war between the FBI and National Transportation Safety Board over jurisdiction in which truth was taking a beating.

“I’m open to any possibility,” he tells me, “but I’m aware that something so certain [as a suicidal pilot] often turns out not to be. Who can forget the name of Richard Jewell? He wasn’t even an Arab, and look what happened to him.”

Abunimah is one more Chicago gadfly. The son of a Jordanian diplomat, he was born in America, grew up in England and Belgium, studied at Princeton and the University of Chicago, and today, at the age of 27, lives in Hyde Park and works at a U. of C. research center. But the life that counts is lived on-line. His Web site is a touch self-dramatizing–“ali abunimah’s bitter pill, uncovering media myths about the middle east” is the banner across his home page. He immediately states “Who I am”: “To borrow George Bush’s words, I’m just a ‘lonely little guy’ in Chicago.” And “what I do”: “On a daily basis, I monitor several sources of news, and respond to them by E-mail when I hear reports that are inaccurate, biased or incomplete. In the past two years I have written more than 300 letters.”

Surely this is an understatement. In a little over a month I’ve received about 80 E-mails from Abunimah, and some went on and on. “If I hear something egregious I respond to it, but those are the easy things,” he says. “The more challenging things are the way most reporting that is purportedly objective carries within it a lot of assumptions which skew it one way or the other. A lot of the stuff is really quite subtle. That’s why it often needs kind of a long rebuttal.”

Abunimah sends his E-mail to between 200 and 300 people, and because electronic correspondence doesn’t stay put long, he assumes his reflections reach thousands. “Most of my critiques, I do two things,” he says. “One is reading things and commenting on them.” He scours the on-line media every morning for misguided thinking and reporting on the Middle East and responds at once. “The other is writing directly to the media and putting that up on the Internet. I try my best to get to the particular journalist or editor. That seems to have an impact.”

Abunimah is preoccupied with National Public Radio. “That’s supposed to be the place where we get critical analysis,” he explains. “You can write to ABC, CBS, and NBC about something egregious. But there’s no point complaining they have no sophisticated analysis about the Middle East–because they don’t have critical analysis about anything, so far as I can tell. But NPR is supposed to provide it, and when they don’t I step in.”

How often does he step in? “Well, daily,” said NPR diplomatic correspondent Ted Clark, who reads everything Abunimah sends him. “Sometimes two or three times a day.”

Do you ever tell him to get a life? I asked.

“No, I never told him that,” Clark replied. “I wouldn’t want him to stop doing what he’s doing.”

Clark elaborated. “He’s definitely not a nuisance. He is persistent, and he comments on nearly everything we do regarding the Middle East. But I find his criticisms to be well reasoned and well argued, even if many people would disagree with his conclusions. What I find helpful is that he distills into very useful short commentaries the point of view of the Palestinians and Arabs.”

Not always so short, I said.

“That’s true. Some of them are quite long. The other thing is, they’re well written. Even if they’re long they’re fun to read.”

Abunimah tells me about a West Wing episode that turned on Syrians shooting down an American passenger plane. The U.S. retaliated by bombing Syria–lively television that infuriated the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The ADC “said–I think rightly–that this is an incitement against an Arab country and Arab people and there is no basis in fact for such a story line?” Not that airliners haven’t been shot down. They have–by Israel, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

“NBC countered by saying Syria was on the list of countries that support terrorism. The ADC came back and said that makes things worse.”

It was as if NBC had waved a note from the White House and said, “Our government says it’s OK to call you scoundrels.”

“That list is no kind of objective assessment of what countries do,” Abunimah went on. “It’s a political tool used to put pressure on countries. It’s still very easy to show Arabs in this very nefarious role, and very few people will stand up and say no.”

Which is where Abunimah comes in. His nay-saying has taught him a few lessons about the media, and he told me a couple of them. One is that it’s now possible–for the first time, presumably, since the days when the town barber got to stroke the town publisher’s throat with a straight razor–for the audience to insist on a dialogue with the storytellers. The equalizer is the Internet. “There’s no way to do what I do without it–to put my thoughts on their desktop whether they want them there or not. It’s conventional wisdom that people don’t pay attention to E-mail and it’s better to send a letter with a stamp. The reverse is true.”

The other lesson’s subtler. Changing the mind of a journalist with an open mind is one thing, but altering coverage is another. “There are organizational pressures. It’s hard for one person to put themselves on the line. There is an overcautiousness and unwillingness to say things that are controversial, even if they’re true. There is a phenomenon I talk about in some of my letters to NPR of presenting issues as though they’re merely a matter of perspective instead of a matter of fact. Getting yourself off the hook as a journalist you can say, ‘X perceives he’s repressed,’ and then you relieve yourself of the responsibility of saying there’s repression. And then the listener can say, ‘Well, that’s one person’s impression.’ And the represser can say, ‘Well, they’re not repressed.'”

Trib’s Copyrights and Wrongs

Last week I lamented the passing of the AOL version of the Tribune, which had included archives that could be explored and downloaded during off hours for only 15 cents a minute. Now there’s no way to read an archived article but to buy it first–and it costs $2.95.

I received a note from my friend Ron Dorfman, a prominent Chicago freelancer who’s sold several pieces to the Tribune, including an account of a trip to Cuba in 1994. “Appended to the on-line version of that piece, which I just downloaded for $2.95,” he wrote, “is the following notice: ‘Copyright 1998, The Tribune Company. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.'”

He went on, “I assume–but am not at this moment willing to shell out the $15 to find out for sure, since that sum is equal to 3.7% of my fee for the article–that they have appended similar notices to my syndicated op-ed columns.” For a time Dorfman self-syndicated a media column.

“The point, of course, is that this notice is a lie. The Tribune does not hold copyright to any of those pieces, though I suppose they could claim copyright for the headline. The copyright is mine. There are no contracts, no letters of agreement, no verbal understandings. ‘Here’s my copy.’ ‘Here’s your money.’ That’s all. Each of the op-ed columns, in fact, also appeared in several other newspapers.”

The Tribune at the moment is vastly expanding its on-line archives with the keyboarding help of Ohio prison inmates paid 39 to 47 cents an hour–the central point of last week’s Hot Type. At huge expense, the Tribune is aggressively exploring new media, and it squeezes every nickel it can. But that doesn’t explain, much less excuse, retroactively claiming copyright it doesn’t hold.

The notice Dorfman spotted seems to be boilerplate that follows everything retrieved from the archives. A spokesman for the Tribune tells me the paper now buys 30 days’ exclusive rights to freelancers’ stories, after which the Tribune and writer own the story jointly–the understanding being that the writer is free to resell it and the paper’s free to leave it posted on the Web site.

As for stories like Dorfman’s that predate this new agreement, the spokesman had no idea. Ask associate editor Joe Leonard, he said. Leonard had no comment.

News Bites

Local university makes NCAA tournament for first time, leads nation’s third-ranked team in second half, but loses thriller after top scorer is ejected. But since the game was only soccer–the world’s most popular team sport and the sport that packed Soldier Field last summer–the Tribune gave the University of Illinois at Chicago’s 3-2 loss to Saint Louis University November 21 a one-paragraph brief, and the Sun-Times blew it off in a line of agate.

There was a lovely piece in the New York Times last Sunday about the “well-kept secret” of top-drawer collegiate soccer. This fall I made it to the Saint Louis University-DePaul match at Wish Field in Lincoln Park. It was another terrific game, played at a level just below what you’d see from the Fire but with the passion unique to a collegiate rivalry. Nothing but the sideline separated the 200-some spectators from the players–certainly not a reporter.

Do the math. From the Sun-Times, November 27: “Richardson hit a three-pointer midway through the second half to make it 57-52, the first time the lead had been reduced to single digits.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.