Cliff May

Imagine if, in 1942, the son of German immigrants from the Sudetenland had yelled "Heil Hitler!" and then gunned down several dozen of his fellow soldiers on an American military base. Most reporters probably would not have expressed bewilderment as to the perpetrator's motive. They'd have simply connected the dots and told the public what happened: An army officer appears to have turned traitor, subscribing to the Nazi ideology and choosing to kill for the Nazi cause.

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But that was then, this is now. After the attack at Fort Hood, evidently carried out by the Muslim son of Palestinian immigrants, much of the major media disconnected from reality. On CNN and NPR, the pressing question was whether there are enough "mental health professionals" in the army. In other words, perhaps the problem was that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, a psychiatrist, didn't have access to ... a psychiatrist.

On MNBC, an anchor wondered whether we will ever know for sure whether religion was a "factor" in a massacre initiated with a shout of "Allahu Akbar!" ("Allah is greatest!") -- the international war cry of terrorists who claim to be fighting what they call a "jihad" for Islam. Even the Fox News Channel displayed such chyrons as: "Investigators search for a motive in Ft. Hood killings."

I know: The intelligence community, the FBI, the military brass - all stumbled badly in connection with this case. But journalists are not supposed to be like government employees. Reporters are supposed to be risk-takers, seeking the truth and telling it - even when the truth is inconvenient and uncomfortable.

That's what I was taught when I was trained as a journalist, and it's what I believed during the more than 20 years I spent in the news business, including at The New York Times which last week ran this front-page, above-the-fold headline: "Told of War Horror, Gunman Feared Deployment." Are Times readers really to believe that the alleged perpetrator was such a sensitive soul that, to take his mind off the "horror" of war, he shot as many of his unarmed colleagues as he could, reloading while the dying and wounded lay bleeding on the ground?


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.