As Muslim mobs, allegedly outraged over the YouTube video, "Innocence of Muslims," assaulted American embassies and murdered American diplomatic personnel, the Associated Press (AP) and the Wall Street Journal
published portions of telephone interviews with a man claiming to be the film's director who identified himself as an Israeli-American named Sam Bacile. (Shown at left being taken for interrogation.) News outlets, especially those known for favoring stories with an anti-Israel angle, like the Guardian
, BBC and the Huffington Post, ran with the story. Some television networks, like ABC, followed suit as well.
It was not long before the Sam Bacile story unraveled. But the damage had been done, with little evidence of contrition in the media.
According to the AP and the Wall Street Journal, Bacile made a series of inflammatory statements, calling Islam a "cancer," insulting Islam's prophet and bizarrely asserting that the film was backed by "100 Jewish donors."
The incendiary content of Bacile's statements, especially the "100 Jewish donors" claim, should have immediately raised suspicion and prompted news outlets to use caution and skepticism in conveying his statements. If Bacile really had been an Israeli Jew who made the film to benefit his "native land," as he claimed, why would he brag to the media about Jewish and Israeli complicity? It is telling of the state of mind that exists among the media that this contradiction did not prompt these news outlets to reconsider running with the story. Unfortunately, much of the media's initial coverage of the YouTube film trailer associated with attacks on the American embassies in Egypt and Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, fell into a familiar pattern of running with a dubious story containing obvious anti-Jewish innuendo.
The Huffington Post
published a version of the AP report linking the alleged Israeli filmmaker with the deaths in Libya of American personnel in its lede:
An Israeli filmmaker based in California went into hiding after a YouTube trailer of his movie attacking Islam's prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by ultra-conservative Muslims on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya. The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three American members of his staff were killed.
also carried a version of the AP report, avoiding any hint of uncertainty about the veracity of the source. A piece titled "Muhammad film: Israeli director goes into hiding after protests" led with
An Israeli film-maker based in California has gone into hiding after his film attacking the prophet Muhammad sparked angry assaults by ultra-conservative Muslims on US Missions in Egypt and Libya, claiming the life of one American...
The Guardian piece then described how,
Speaking by phone from an undisclosed location, the writer and director Sam Bacile remained defiant, describing Islam as "a cancer". The 56-year-old said he had intended his film to be a provocative political statement condemning the religion. ... Bacile, a California property developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew, said he believed the movie would help his native land by exposing Islam's flaws to the world. ... Mr. Bacile said he raised $5 million from about 100 Jewish donors, whom he declined to identify.
Jeffrey Goldberg, however, was suspicious about Bacile's identity and decided to look into the matter. Goldberg contacted Steve Klein, a known anti-Muslim activist who was identified as the film's consultant. Goldberg writes,
Klein told me that Bacile, the producer of the film, is not Israeli, and most likely not Jewish, as has been reported, and that the name is, in fact, a pseudonym. He said he did not know "Bacile's real name"... He said the man who identified himself as Bacile asked him to help make the anti-Muhammad film. When I asked him to describe Bacile, he said: "I don't know that much about him. I met him, I spoke to him for an hour. He's not Israeli, no. I can tell you this for sure, the State of Israel is not involved."
On September 13, the Washington Post
published an article, "Doubts Grow About Source of Anti-Muslim Film Behind Attacks
," criticizing the media for being loathe to correct their initial failure to validate Bacile's identity and story. The article expresses dismay that "the apparent misreporting of Bacile's identity triggered a series of 'updates' from media sources, but no direct admissions that earlier reports were incorrect."
Eventually, most news outlets and networks reported that the "Bacile" story was false and an Egyptian-American named Nakoula Bassely Nakoula, who has a checkered past, was behind the making of the film. ABC News
The controversial "Innocence of Muslims" was written, produced and directed by a convicted drug manufacturer and scam artist, who has told authorities he actually wrote the script in federal prison and began production two months after his June 2011 release from custody.
On September 13, CNN's Anderson Cooper ran a segment
on the story confirming that "Sam Bacile is a fake" and that the FBI had already spoken to Nakoula. However, the damage is done and even after the story had been debunked, some, unaware that Bacile was a fake, were still discussing the alleged Israeli-American and Jewish angle. On Cooper's show, Fouad Ajami, a distinguished scholar and commentator on the Middle East, mentioned the alleged Jewish connection to the film, compelling Cooper to correct that the filmmaker was not Jewish.
But some of the outlets first reporting the story of Bacile have still not been forthright about their mistake. The Guardian updated its article with the following correction:
Update - 14 September 2012: The anti-Islam film was originally reported by the Associated Press news agency to have been written, directed and produced by an Israeli real estate developer living in California, Sam Bacile. Later reports by AP suggest that this was a fake identity and the news agency issued a fresh story having investigated further and traces the genesis of the film to a Coptic Christian, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, living in California.
The update fails to address the failure of the Guardian to do due diligence on the initial story and still can only commit that the later AP reports "suggest" the story is fake.
The question remains, why were these outlets so eager to run with such a dubious story? More importantly, now that it is abundantly evident that the filmmaker is not Jewish and the charges of a hundred Jewish donors were part of a hoax, will the news outlets that irresponsibly ran with the story admit their mistake and formally correct the record?