Never have the perils of a news cycle driven by the speed of the Internet been more on display than in the events surrounding the deadly Islamist attack on U.S. diplomats in Libya and Egypt. The rush to judgment on the part of politicians, journalists, and amateur observers was seen in glib assertions by the press that the events were “sparked” by a noxious movie trailer, seen on YouTube, ridiculing Islam and its prophet Mohammed. Subsequent reports clarified that the attacks that killed America’s ambassador to Libya, coming on 9/11, were orchestrated.
But the ugliest manifestations of the need for speed were early reports claiming that the film was created by an Israeli. The Wall Street Journal, in a report later picked up by outlets ranging from The New York Times to the JTA, interviewed by phone a man who identified himself as an “Israeli-American” real estate developer named Sam Bacile. “Bacile” claimed to have raised $5 million to finance the film with the help of “100 Jewish donors.” That report ricocheted around the Web, until subsequent reporting — the kind of reporting that should have preceded the publication of so toxic and dubious a claim — confirmed that the filmmaker’s real identity was Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian with a criminal record and a long paper trail of aliases.
The Wall Street Journal posted a correction, but the damage was done. Although Nakoula has been exposed in nearly all the reputable media outlets, slurs take on a life of their own — along with speed, another pitfall of our wired world.
Jews everywhere joined in condemning the vicious nature of the anti-Islam film, just as they insisted that no film, cartoon, song, or novel, no matter how offensive, can ever justify the violent and murderous reactions we saw in Benghazi and Cairo. If our vigorous defense of free speech angers extremists in the Muslim world, so be it. But we refuse to be held responsible for a subject’s lies, a reporter’s lack of circumspection, and the media’s manic echo chamber.