If you watched NewsChannel 5’s two night “investigation” last week of allegations of terrorist training at Islamville, a Muslim “compound” in rural Tennessee, through to the end, you’d probably come away with the right impression.
Nick Beres, the Nashville-based correspondent who did the pieces, makes it clear that no neighbors have heard gunshots or explosions. The country sheriff says there’s no reason to suspect that anything goes on there that wouldn’t go on in a typical trailer park. After the last segment ran, the desk anchor closes on a “the more you know” note, saying that polls show Muslims in America are too often the victims of discrimination, and that the community, in fact, overwhelmingly rejects terrorism.
But before getting to that point, viewers get a lot of unanswered terror-mongering and sensationalism, and a story framed in a way that, until the very end of the two-part series, treats the supposed question of whether or not Islamville is a terrorist training ground as a matter up for reasonable debate.
I asked Sandra Boonstra, the CBS affiliate’s news director, if she thought the station had found anything to substantiate the claim.
“No, we didn’t find anything,” was her quick and certain reply.
Viewers should have learned that right off the bat, rather than late into the two segments. The station’s decision to break the piece into two parts—to be aired on two separate nights during sweeps, the period under which viewership is measured and translated into ratings—saved the clear refutation of the terrorism allegations for the second night, leaving a fact-deprived and inflammatory charge hanging in front of viewers for 24 hours.
The claim that Islamville might be something sinister is floated in “Homegrown Jihad,” a fringe video that, Boonstra says, her station was alerted to by a member of the Nashville’s Muslim community. Upon learning that the video was making rounds in local churches, Boonstra says the station decided to take a look at its charges.
“We thought, well, if a lot of people are watching this, forming opinions about it, then we should probably try to see if there’s anything that really substantiates any of the claims,” says Boonstra.
Boonstra insists that the story “was not just something we concocted because it was sweeps,” but acknowledged that it was deliberately scheduled and promoted for the period.
“We do all kinds of things that we think are going to be stories that are going to be of interest to the majority of our viewers and people will watch, because it is sweeps,” says Boonstra. ”We do make specific decisions on stories that we think are promote-able, and stories that people are going to want to watch. So, yeah, of course.”
The first segment opens with clips from “Homegrown Jihad.” Think dramatic music and grainy videos showing swarthy men practicing fighting moves … somewhere.
“That’s some pretty scary stuff,” says Beres after playing a clip.
That’s followed by a paint-by-numbers quote from a local Muslim community leader, who says nothing of the sort is going on at Islamville. With the he-said-she-said out of the way, and viewers no better informed about the truth of the allegation, the reporter has this to say—delivered, in part, from the station’s news helicopter while flying above the “compound.”
“In a News Channel 5 exclusive we ventured into the private Muslim village with our cameras rolling for an exclusive look around. We went to find out: is this a terrorist training camp or simply a quiet trailer park? You’ll see what we found and you’ll also hear from those in the best position to know whether or not there is any real danger. You may be surprised to see what we learned.”
And scene. With that, things pretty much wrapped up for the first segment, and viewers were exhorted to tune in tomorrow to find out the whole truth.
Boonstra said that the decision to split the story into two parts was a matter of length, not motivated by any desire to drag the story out across sweeps. Still, she says she regrets the decision.
“It did leave the question of what did they find. Looking back, it probably would have been better to do the whole thing in one piece,” says Boonstra. “It did kind of seem like a big tease to wonder ‘When are they going to tell me?’ And of course, we told you the next night. Yeah, I would agree it did seem like a tease at the end, and you still didn’t know what they’d found.”
The second night’s segment opens with clips of the president talking about the terrorist threat, and soldiers shooting.
“The domestic terrorism threat is real, and some believe it’s nurtured in remote areas of this country, including middle Tennessee,” Beres says. But the station’s fear mongering—and interest building—frame soon falls apart. This is simply because there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the “terrorist training ground” suspicions. An unannounced drop-by to Islamville, set up to be a gotcha, goes wrong (or right, I guess) when the reporter and his camera are welcomed inside. “One of the men even joined us in the car and gave us a tour,” Beres says.
Online, the station’s text version of the story promoting the second night’s video piece gets the important fact—that there’s nothing remotely suspicious at Islamville—immediately in front of readers:
DOVER, Tenn. – A controversial video alleges that a private Muslim community in Middle Tennessee is an Islamic terrorist training camp. A NewsChannel 5 investigation found no evidence of such activity.
But viewers didn’t get the courtesy of having the facts presented right up front.
Remember that the station closed its second-night report with a note that Muslims are often discriminated against. In retrospect, that was a wise warning. Since the story ran, an area mosque has been vandalized. According to the Nashville Scene, local immigrant advocates and a mosque spokesman can’t help but think that the graffiti was touched off by News Channel 5’s series.
Boonstra denies any connection, pointing out that in recent years Nashville and nearby communities have suffered anti-Muslim vandalism (and even a bombing)—long before the pieces ran.
“I would hope that those kind of opinions are much deeper than watching a two-parter on NewsChannel 5. It scares me if they’re not, you know?” she says.
Overall, Boonstra says that “the fact that we wanted to go and find out what the truth was, was the overall benefit of doing it in the first place.”
If so, the truth should have been quickly highlighted, not kept away from viewers while urging them to tune back in, and not delayed while factless charges were leveled against a beleaguered minority.Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.