News your connection to The Boston Globe

When blog hysteria does real harm

ON OCT. 1, a tragedy shocked the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman: 21-year-old engineering student Joel Henry Hinrichs III killed himself with a homemade bomb while sitting on a bench about 100 yards away from the university's football stadium, packed with 84,000 fans. Since then, this sad event has mushroomed into a story that touches on some important and controversial issues: vigilance and paranoia in the age of terrorism, and journalistic ethics in the age of the ''new media."

Within days of Hinrichs's death, a number of Internet websites were speculating that he had planned to blow himself up inside the stadium -- and that he was a radical Muslim terrorist. Blog headlines screamed, ''Jihad at the University of Oklahoma?" and ''The Oklahoma Suicide Bomber." Bloggers demanded to know why the mainstream media were ignoring the story, and some supplied a ready answer: The liberals in the media were afraid to ''offend the gods of political correctness" -- as syndicated columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin put it -- by calling attention to Islamic terrorism on US soil.

But was there any substance to the story? Apparently not. According to the authorities, there is no indication that Hinrichs was anything more than a depressed, troubled young man.

One fact did understandably trigger suspicion: Two days before his death, Hinrichs had tried to buy ammonium nitrate -- the fertilizer Timothy McVeigh had used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing -- at a local feed store. This had brought him to the attention of the police, and after his suicide, the FBI and the Joint Terrorism Task Force were brought into the investigation. While the investigation is still ongoing, the FBI said on Oct. 4 that it had yet to find any evidence of a terrorist connection.

The rumor mill seized on a couple of other ''suspicious" facts: Hinrichs had a Pakistani roommate and lived a block away from a mosque, once attended (before Hinrichs's arrival on the campus) by 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. And then there were numerous unfounded allegations: that Hinrichs was a Muslim convert and a regular at the mosque; that he had tried to enter the stadium but run away when a guard wanted to search his backpack; and that Islamic extremist literature and a one-way plane ticket to Algeria had been found in his apartment.

These claims have been debunked in an Oct. 13 article in The Wall Street Journal. US Representative Tom Cole (R-Okla.) has also said that the FBI has assured him that Hinrichs's act was an individual suicide. Yet the cries of a coverup remain. Many denizens of the blogosphere are accusing the Journal and other critics of antiblog snobbery, and claiming that even if the ''lone suicide" version turns out to be true, the bloggers were right to ''ask questions," try to ''connect the dots," and force the big media to pay attention. We live in dangerous times, they say; extra vigilance can't hurt.

They're wrong. This is not an issue of ''mainstream media good, blogs bad." I love blogs; I've had one myself for the past month. I think ''citizen journalists" can do a great job complementing the mainstream media, providing much needed outside fact-checking and analysis, and in some cases newsgathering as well. It's not a matter of credentials, either: One of the worst offenders in flogging the ''suicide bomber" story, Malkin, is a professional journalist. And let's face it, it's not as if the professional media have never circulated bogus ''news" or fanned hysteria (look at the Hurricane Katrina coverage).

In the Hinrichs case, however, it seems that the blogs and the mainstream media have brought out the worst in each other, with local TV stations picking up Internet rumors and feeding them back to the Internet.

And, yes, the hysteria has done real harm. The conspiracy theories on the right will still flourish even after the case is closed; meanwhile, many on the left will use this fiasco as an excuse to dismiss legitimate concerns about terrorism as right-wing paranoia and anti-Muslim bigotry. Hinrichs's family has been put through the additional hell of having to publicly defend a dead son and brother against accusations of being a murderous fanatic.

The mainstream media can be arrogant. But the bloggers and their readers are sometimes too willing to accept trafficking in rumor and speculation as a process from which the truth will ultimately emerge through the self-correcting power of debate.

By the time it emerges, too much damage may be done. If the ''citizen journalists" want respect, they must hold themselves and one another to higher standards of accuracy.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search