The arrest of six New Jersey men for a plot to launch an attack on the Fort Dix army base was the Story of the Day. All three networks led with charges brought against the Moslem sextet--three Albanian brothers and three friends--after an FBI sting purported to sell them assault weapons.     
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video thumbnailNBCFort Dix army base alleged sabotage plot foiledFBI arrests cell of NJ Moslems in firearms stingPete WilliamsWashington DC
video thumbnailCBSDomestic terrorism preparedness and preventionFanfare arrests result in trivial prosecutionsArmen KeteyianNew York
video thumbnailCBSDeath Penalty controversiesPhysicians refuse to act as executionersRandall PinkstonNorth Carolina
video thumbnailABCStorms, heavy rains, floods on great plainsWaters rise rapidly in Missouri River systemDean ReynoldsMissouri
video thumbnailABCEnergy conservation and alternate fuel useSan Francisco loves solar, greenery, recyclingBrian RooneySan Francisco
video thumbnailNBCNorthern Ireland peace process succeedsUnity government of former enemies sworn inNed ColtBelfast
video thumbnailABC
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Afghanistan's Taliban regime aftermath, fightingUSMC killed 19 civilians in bazaar, apologizesJonathan KarlPentagon
video thumbnailCBSIraq: orphanages overwhelmed as parents are killedChildren lose hope, no tradition of adoptionMark StrassmannBaghdad
video thumbnailNBCSyria social services swamped by war refugeesDenied work permits, need housing, healthcareAnn CurryDamascus
video thumbnailNBCHoly Land archeologyTomb of King Herod the Great may be unearthedMartin FletcherTel Aviv
FORT DIX PIZZA DELIVERY DEATH PLOT ALLEGED The arrest of six New Jersey men for a plot to launch an attack on the Fort Dix army base was the Story of the Day. All three networks led with charges brought against the Moslem sextet--three Albanian brothers and three friends--after an FBI sting purported to sell them assault weapons.

The plot, as described by prosecutors, was so outlandish that it could not fail to attract headlines. The six were accused of trying to buy AK-47s and M-16s so that they could infiltrate the army base disguised as pizza deliverymen and shoot soldiers. The pizza idea allegedly was hatched because one of the six delivers pies to Fort Dix for Super Mario's.

So far so good as a yarn. As quality journalism, however, much of the networks' coverage was substandard. We have two major complaints: loose terminology and lack of fairness. Both are exemplified by this from ABC's anchor Charles Gibson: "Today we learned of another terrorist plot that has been foiled."

First terminology: to describe this alleged plan as a "terrorist" plot is a misnomer since "terrorism" refers to violence against civilian targets for political aims. CBS' Bob Orr, for example, called the accused "a homegrown terror cell." It is hard to escape the conclusion that "terrorist" is used as a sloppy synonym for "Moslem gunmen." They first aroused suspicion, according to prosecutors, when they were spotted on videotape at a firing range in the Pocono Mountains shooting guns and shouting Allah Akhbar.

Second fairness: the details of the charges against the six were recited as if the plot were a fact not an allegation. CBS' Orr stated as fact that "the foreign-born Islamic radicals told informants of their plans to attack Fort Dix." None of the six was able to present his side of the case or claim the presumption of innocence. "The group's leader said he wanted to kill at least 100 soldiers," asserted ABC's Brian Ross (no link), without qualification. The burden of proof rests with federal prosecutors to prove their charges and, in the meantime, the plot is alleged not proven. The mere farfetched nature of the scheme--six pizza deliverymen taking on 14,000 soldiers--should have made it seem implausible even as a set of charges.

To his credit, CBS' Orr included this soundbite from Israa Schnewer, a sister of three of the suspects: "The Poconos? It is a vacation. They go there for vacation…They shoot a little in the shooting range. They want to have fun. I mean--they are guys." And NBC's Pete Williams was scrupulous with his "officials say…" and "the FBI says…" and "federal prosecutors say…" and "court documents say…" and so on.

Also hats off to CBS' Armen Keteyian who put the charges in context. So often in the so-called War on Terrorism, sensational initial allegations made with "lots of fanfare" have not been borne out by subsequent proof at trial. He cited statistics from New York University's Center on Law and Security that 550 "larger, bolder terrorism cases" since 2001 have resulted in 387 "lesser crimes like fraud and immigration violation" and only 163 terrorism prosecutions.

Let the viewer have fun with the pizza plot--but be wary of its veracity.

UPDATE: at CBS' Public Eye blog Brian Montopoli (text link) asks reporter Bob Orr about his use of "terror." Orr replied: "I think you're talking about guys that surveiled targets, trained with weapons, and stated more than once that they wanted to kill Americans…So at a minimum they were terrorist wannabees."

Leaving aside whether they actually did what Orr said or are merely accused of it, Orr's definition of "terrorist" seems far too broad. A murderer, like Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, for example, can want to kill Americans but is a common criminal not a terrorist, because his motive was personal not political. Similarly, attacks on the US military in Iraq have the goal of killing Americans, but are not acts of terrorism--they are acts of warfare.

"Terrorism" is such a loaded word and a term of art in political debate so should be used with precision. The Bush Administration, for example, insists that the attacks of September 11th, 2001, were so heinous precisely because they targeted civilian workers and airline passengers going about their daily lives.

Soldiers are not in the same category: they are trained to defend themselves; they expect to be targeted by enemies; society grants them much more leeway than civilians to use lethal force. For an army base, preparing itself against infiltration and attack (even by pizza deliverymen) is a routine part of a day's work. Such threats are neither surprises nor sneak attacks.

Even if federal prosecutors sloppily expand the definition of "terrorism" to include military targets there is no reason for journalists to be imprecise…in fact all the more reason to resist imprecision.

UPDATE: conservative media monitor Brent Baker (text link) at criticizes Armen Keteyian's story on CBS for citing the New York University study that contrasted initial charges in War on Terrorism cases and eventual convictions. Baker does not find fault with the Center for Law and Security's data, only with its agenda, about which, he says, Keteyian should have alerted viewers.

Baker has a problem with CL&S's executive director because she formerly worked for financier George Soros' Open Society Institute and has published about torture and abu-Ghraib. He criticizes CL&S for giving a fellowship to Sidney Blumenthal, "infamous Clinton sycophant and conservative-basher." Baker notes that a member of the CL&S board is Dana Priest of The Washington Post, whose reporting covered the CIA's extreme rendition of suspects to secret prisons, although he does not say what is wrong with that.

A last black mark for CL&S in the eyes of is a speech entitled The Hidden Roots of War given at the center by Vanity Fair's Craig Unger. Unger examined whether there is an alliance between neoconservatives and born-again Christian supporters of Israel.

THIS WILL NOT HURT A BIT Elsewhere in the criminal justice system, CBS' Randall Pinkston filed an Eye on Crime feature on lethal injections. North Carolina is the latest of nine states that has suspended its death penalty. It cannot find physicians to act as executioners because its Medical Board has threatened sanctions against doctors who kill. Dr Charles van der Horst of the University of North Carolina described what is required: "To mix the chemicals, to get the needle into the vein properly, to judge the dose that is correct for this particular person and to make sure they are dead. That is committing murder." The state is suing the Medical Board to withdraw its ban.

RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT The weekend's storm that spawned the killer tornado in Kansas also deposited a downpour. Now the entire Missouri River system is facing floods. ABC and NBC sent reporters into the zone. NBC's Tom Costello showed the river in St Joseph Mo running "three times faster than normal" at eight feet above flood levels. ABC's Dean Reynolds was in the town of Big Lake Mo, named "because it lies on the shores of a big lake"--except now "it is in the lake." CBS had Nancy Cordes explain the National Weather Service's flood forecasting technology, combining "rainfall data from Doppler radar and satellite, with water levels from river gauges." The system was created after the Mississippi River floods of 1993 killed almost 50 people. This time it successfully warned of flash floods: the Grand River at Sumner Mo, for example, rose 25 feet in two days, as predicted.

GREEN LIGHTS ABC continued the week's environmental theme when it sent anchor Gibson on the road to San Francisco. He called it "the perfect place for our series Going Green," not to be confused with NBC's America Goes Green feature yesterday in which Anne Thompson investigated plastic shopping bag pollution. Brian Rooney checked off the ways in which the City by the Bay is renewable, sustainable and carbon neutral. Yes, grocery stores have no more plastic bags--but also roofs are covered with electricity-generating solar panels and carbon-absorbing gardens and lighting is switching to compact fluorescents. "But it is not all grass and light bulbs. Huge amounts of money made here during the computer revolution are now pouring into new energy technology" as Silicon Valley venture capital--we said it--goes green too.

DO NOT TEAR DOWN THIS WALL Only NBC assigned a reporter to the swearing-in ceremonies of the new government of Northern Ireland--ABC and CBS both mentioned it passing. Ned Colt saw "broad smiles among once bitter enemies, as hardline protestant cleric Ian Paisley and former IRA member Martin McGuinness cemented the deal." Colt contrasted the positives--a construction boom, rising home prices, unarmored police on bicycles--with remaining "signs of divisiveness." In Belfast, Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods are still separated by a ten mile wall. "While a few gates have been installed, no one here is quite ready to tear the wall down."

MISFORTUNES OF WAR Where wars are still being waged, all three networks examined the plight of civilians. ABC focused on Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai refuses to accept the level of civilian casualties: "It is not understandable any more." In early March, Jonathan Karl (subscription required) reported, a Marine Corps patrol "allegedly opened fire into a crowded bazaar," killing 19 and now the US military has apologized profusely. Col John Nicholson used the phrase "deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry." Karl commented that the apology is unusual because it comes before the military has concluded its investigation at Camp Lejeune and "before anybody has been charged."

In Baghdad, CBS' Mark Strassmann surveyed the cramped orphanages of Baghdad where "some facilities crowd ten kids to a small bedroom." There are so many orphans because so many parents are being killed. "For complicated religious and cultural reasons, Iraqi orphans are mostly scorned and seldom adopted." Strassmann warned they may grown up to be the "next generation of insurgents and terrorists." After all, Red Crescent caretakers pointed out, "Saddam Hussein was raised as an orphan." Many Iraqi war refugees have fled to Damascus, where Ann Curry of Today filed an In Depth feature for NBC on their plight. Syria does not allow them to work legally so they face rising rents, soaring food prices and a lack of basic healthcare. "Nothing. No Money. No home. No everything," refugee Ihab al-Jumaini shrugged.

KING OF THE JEWS The last time Holy Land archeology made news was in February (text link) when the Discovery Channel claimed to have found The Last Tomb of Jesus Christ. Nothing so grand this time, so only NBC assigned a reporter to the latest find. After 35 years of digging in the ruins of Herodium, eight miles south of Jerusalem, a staircase has been discovered cut into a hill leading to a coffin. Professor Ehud Netzer claimed it was the tomb of King Herod, the Biblical villain in the Massacre of the Innocents. The problem, noted Martin Fletcher, is that historians depict Herod's bier as being "solid gold, studded with precious stones." This was "just a slab of stone with broken carvings."

MENTIONED IN PASSING The network newscasts do not assign correspondents to all of the news of the day. If Tyndall Report readers come across videostreamed reports online of stories that were mentioned only in passing, post the link in comments for us to check out.

Today's examples: Britain's Queen Elizabeth II concluded her visit to the United States…the Marine Corps is conducting a court martial into an alleged cover-up of the murder of Iraqi civilians in Haditha…wild brush fires spread in southern Georgia and Florida.