What the controversy over Washington Post’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi headline tells us about American news media

The newspaper described the slain ISIS chief as an 'austere religious scholar'.

ByRajan Laad
What the controversy over Washington Post’s Abu Bakr al Baghdadi headline tells us about American news media
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The Washington Post headline describing the slain leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, as an “austere religious scholar” launched a thousand jokes on social media, besides incurring the displeasure of news consumers as well as media watchdogs. The backlash had an impact, and the headline was altered.

The accompanying article stated that “Baghdadi maintained a canny pragmatism” and that “acquaintances would remember him as a shy, near-sighted youth who liked soccer but preferred to spend his free time at the local mosque”.

The Post is not an amateur’s blog overwhelmed by faux political correctness that it would feel compelled to euphemise the brutality of ISIS. The newspaper has over 144 years of journalistic experience. Every syllable that’s published is carefully vetted at multiple stages. They must know a headline is supposed to summarise the article’s contents. Yet, they presided over such a catastrophe.

Here’s a brief history of ISIS under Baghdadi, whom even Al Qaeda found extreme, which makes it unforgivable to understate its brutality. 

Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed and millions made homeless by ISIS. It ethnically cleansed religious minorities across the Middle East. Its affiliated groups such as Boko Haram have slaughtered people from minority religions in Africa.

ISIS’s modus operandi was to burn alive their captives in cages and dunk the cages in water. They also executed homosexuals and anybody who intended to leave the group. All such dastardly acts of brutality were broadcast online. On one occasion, they executed some youth for watching a football match on TV. 

They kidnapped thousands of women, including young girls, and forced them into sex slavery. They trafficked organs from their hostages, including children. They indoctrinated young children and used them as suicide bombers.

ISIS inspired the terror attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It also conducted coordinated attacks in Paris, killing 138 people and wounding over 400. ISIS claimed responsibility when a man drove his truck into a crowd in Nice, murdering 87 people and injuring over 400. An ISIS-inspired suicide bomber attacked a concert in the UK, killing 22 people and wounding 59. 

There have been myriad attacks of various scales all over the world by those inspired and radicalised by ISIS.

Despite this record, the Post chose to euphemise what ISIS stood for and even pivot to details around the killing of its leader to attack US President Donald Trump.

The journalist Matt Taibbi, who is no admirer of Trump, chronicled the mainstream media’s focus on the irrelevant after the ISIS leader was killed. CNN said the president had not “informed key Democrats” about the operation. In an attempt to push the Russia collusion angle, the Post said Trump had “notified Russians…before telling congressional leaders. It also compared Trump’s gloating with the more “measured” tone of Barack Obama after Osama bin Laden was killed. The New York Times claimed the raid that killed Baghdadi was “complicated” by the president’s plans to withdraw from Syria and that it happened “in spite of” Trump, not because of him. The raid was a “victory built on factors Trump derides”, it was a win for intelligence agencies he has criticised. The newspaper complained about Trump’s remark that the operation was like watching a movie, since “there was no live audio. Some media outlets stated the obvious: that Trump was going to “milk” Baghdadi’s killing for political benefit. Newsweek quoted experts as saying that Trump’s situation room photo appeared more “staged” than Obama’s. 

In his article, Taibbi said he was compelled to turn to the BBC and the AFP for facts about the operation carried out by his own country. It’s a sad state of affairs for a country boasting so many reputed newspapers and news channels with budgets that run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now that the dust has settled on Baghdadi’s death, it’s worth analysing how the mainstream media finds itself so out of depth and unable to report plainly the facts of such an important story.

There are two major reasons for this. First, the media’s unbridled contempt for Trump such that they are unwilling to carry any news that shows him in a positive light. The second is the devolution of liberalism into a cult of identity politics and political correctness such that they hesitate to be factual about the leader of ISIS because he belongs to a minority religious group in the US.

The mainstream media was caught by surprise when Trump was elected president in 2016. It should have been a moment of reflection for the media. But instead of undertaking remedial measures they decided to sprint in the opposite direction, and unofficially launch a movement to destroy Trump. It was partly because they didn’t approve of him personally, but mainly because Trump won despite their overwhelmingly negative coverage of him, rendering them irrelevant. The campaign against Trump is actually a campaign for the mainstream media, an attempt to seize back relevance. 

The anti-Trump campaign had the media breathlessly carry a surfeit of false news stories, usually stemming from anonymous “sources”. If they weren’t covering Trump colluding with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, they carried salacious articles about his private life prior to his becoming president. CNN dedicated primetime hours to interviewing Trump’s former girlfriends. On some days, as some commentators noted about the media’s coverage, Trump is an evil genius and on other days he is a bloviating ignoramus. The Mueller report and subsequent hearing largely cleared Trump of colluding with the Russians. And his call with the Ukrainian president turned out to be nothing as serious as it was claimed once Trump released the transcript. 

At every point, the media informed their audiences that the walls were closing in on Trump and that it was a matter of days before he was impeached. Support and leaks from operatives of intelligence agencies and the Democratic Party made this a coordinated campaign. Every article and panel discussion was merely another way to diminish Trump. Indeed, the recent Project Veritas sting operations have exposed anti-Trump in the news media. 

Clearly, the media overplayed their hand with every news story to the extent that in the minds of their audiences they now sound like the boy who cried “wolf” every time they say “impeachment”. The consequence is that Trump is almost insulated against criticism and his base is united like never before. In fact, Trump’s approval ratings are identical to Obama’s at this point in his presidency, despite the fact that media coverage of the former president was nothing short of sycophantic. 

Einstein once said that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results”. By continuing to pursue the anti-Trump campaign that has failed thus far, the mainstream media’s coverage of him is devolving into insanity. They probably don’t even realise that their coverage now appears like a parody sketch on a comedy show.

It is also a sad reflection on the devolution of liberalism, which once valued freedom. Modern liberalism is a cult of the self-serving, self-preserving and self-congratulating. They celebrate victimhood and demonise achievement. The deafening cacophony within their echo chamber has insulated them from hearing external voices.

They regularly compete in wokeness and for approval on social media. They pat themselves on the back at this faux virtuousness without realising how ridiculous they seem. The content they create is meant for mutual consumption, after which they lavish each other with blandishments and prizes. They claim to be committed to diversity, in race, nationality, sexual orientation, religion. But they forget that the most important kind of diversity is the diversity of perspectives from across the spectrum of ideological and political affiliations.

If the Post and other news organisations really believed in the diversity of views, their empowered journalists would have called out the relentless and often baseless anti-Trump coverage. Journalists at the Post would have prevented the eulogising of the slain head chief who opposed every liberal principle they claim to stand for. Considering the direction in which the US mainstream media is going, it seems they will lead each other down the precipice into a bottomless chasm. 

The motto of the Post is “democracy dies in darkness”. Sadly, the way things are going at this once fine newspaper, what is really dying is their credibility and reputation.

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