In the wake of the horrible killings in Norway, I saw several tweets and Facebook posts that were something like “Brown: terrorist. White: extremist. Got it.” or “It speaks volumes that the immediate assumption was that this was the work of Muslim terrorists.” In other words, people began quite quickly to comment on the media reaction to the story, criticizing (implicitly or explicitly) for being anti-Muslim. This seemed odd to me, because by the time I started to see stories about the killings, the stories themselves were tentative about what the motivations of the killer or killers were.
After some discussion with one of the posters of one of these comments, what became clear is that some tabloids and pundits were quick to label the motivations. The Sun (on July 22) called it an “Al-Queda Massacre” and Thomas Jocelyn of The Standard wrote, somewhat more circumspectly, “We don’t know if al Qaeda was directly responsible for today’s events, but in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra.”
The legitimate news organizations were bit cautious about assigning motivations; at least, the ones I was able to check. The New York Times, after Anders Behring Breivik was arrested, quoted police officials as saying he was a “right-wing extremist,” although later they pointed out the similarities of the bombing and killings to prior al-Qaeda attacks, including declared threats against Norway. The Associated Press, prior to the arrest, quoted acting national Police Chief Sveinung Sponheim as refusing to speculate as to motivation, but the article also noted the al-Qaeda threats.
Once more was known about Breivik, discussion has focused on what to call him; a “terrorist,” an “extremist,” a “Christian fundamentalist,” a “right-wing terrorist,” etc. And, to some extent, this is a useful discussion to have. But any such discussion should shrink, I think, in importance to the facts on the ground: the grieving families, justice, and prevention of such attacks in the future. Part of our media-saturated culture is to think that stories on the media reaction to the story are as or more important than the story itself. No one should be surprised at The Sun being a tabloid, or even a right-leaning pundit making a too quick (but, seriously, in the current case, not uneducated) guess that Islamist extremists were behind the attack. Why is this worth comment? We should, I think, be slower to speak; we need fewer pundits, and we need even fewer meta-pundits. Ironically, of course, this blog post is meta-meta punditry, but such is the rabbit hole we enter.