Did an anti-Muslim film spark a spasm of violence against American interests in the Middle East? Or was it two films?
Was the film’s maker an “Israeli Jew”?
Was there even a film in the first place, or simply a 14-minute YouTube post claiming to be a trailer for a two-hour movie?
The news media couldn’t agree on such matters Wednesday as the story of the attacks and its causes rolled out across print, TV and Web sites. Most seemed to attribute the cause of the attacks — one of which left the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other State Department diplomats dead — to a film.
Beyond that, the details got murky. Fast.
The Associated Press and The Washington Post, for example, said the crudely made YouTube video that slurs the prophet Muhammad is for a movie called “The Innocence of Muslims.” But the Huffington Post and the New York Post, among others, said the movie was entitled “Muhammad’s Trial.”
One film? Two? Perhaps even a third: The New York Times said an Egyptian blogger reported that confusion over the film was so widespread in Cairo that a group of fundamentalist Muslims had called for a protest at the Dutch Embassy because the Dutch government was allegedly producing a film slandering Islam — a claim swiftly denied by Dutch diplomats.
But it may not have been a film at all that triggered the violence — or a film may have been responsible in one case, but not the other. There was the not-incidental date of the attacks — Sept. 11 — and the prospect that the attacks were planned to coincide with the anniversary of al-Qaeda’s strike on New York and the Pentagon 11 years ago. Obama administration officials suspected that the Libyan embassy violence was part of a plot that used the protests as a cover.
Contradictory and erroneous reporting in the wake of breaking news, particularly the sort involving mob violence, is nothing new in the media. But the reporting Wednesday on the embassy attacks sometimes resembled a carnival of confusion, with stories striking out in all directions. The episode suggests the difficulties of ascertaining facts about events occuring in two places thousands of miles away — and the fog of war is no clearer in these days of instant communication.
There was, for instance, the mystery of Sam Bacile, the supposed writer, director and producer of a film that depicts Muhammad as a philanderer and child abuser. The Wall Street Journal identified Bacile as a 52-year-old “Israeli-American real-estate developer” who raised $5 million from “about 100 Jewish donors, whom he declined to identify.” In a telephone interview with the paper, a man claiming to be Bacile said he made the film in California last year. It quoted him as saying, “Islam is a cancer.”
AP, in a widely published story, said Bacile was 56 and “an Israeli Jew.” The wire said he was in hiding as a result of the controversy over the film and spoke “from an undisclosed location.”
Reuters identified Bacile as “an Israeli-American property developer” whose name “could have Egyptian origins.”
Or not. By midafternoon, there were doubts about whether Bacile existed.
The Atlantic reported that Steve Klein, “a self-described militant Christian activist” who told the magazine he was a consultant on the film, said Bacile is not Israeli, “most likely” not Jewish and isn’t named Bacile. Klein said he didn’t know Bacile’s real name.
Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote the Atlantic story, said falsely citing Jewish backing for the film could have “serious ramifications” in the Middle East and elsewhere. “If Jews made it, so be it,” he said. “But hiding behind allegedly Jewish [filmmakers and donors] is doubly pernicious. The movie is an attack on Islam, but claiming that Jews made it is a direct attack on Jews.”
The apparent mis-reporting of Bacile’s identity triggered a series of “updates’’ from media sources, but no direct admissions that earlier reports were incorrect.
In a subsequent dispatch, the Journal described Bacile as “the purported filmmaker” and said he had gone “into hiding.” The paper said it could no longer reach “the man calling himself Mr. Bacile,” nor could it find any record of him in the United States or Israel. It did not explain how a man who apparently doesn’t exist could go “into hiding.” A spokeswoman for the newspaper, Ashley Huston, declined to comment: “We don’t publicly discuss our newsgathering,” she said.
AP also cast doubt on its own reporting later on Wednesday with a story that said “some key facts” about Bacile had “crumbled,” such as his name, religious background and national origin.
An AP spokesman, Paul Colford, declined to say whether the wire service’s earlier story had been wrong. “We continue to report this story and gather new information to explain the origins of the movie and the individuals behind it,” said Colford.
AP added yet another mystery to the mysteries piling up about the movie: That there may not have been a movie at all.
The wire service said it was unclear whether a two-hour movie about Muhammad exists beyond the trailer that was posted on YouTube, apparently in early July, but only recently translated into Arabic. The only evidence, it said, was the comments of an unidentified employee at the Vine Theater in Los Angeles who said a version of the movie ran briefly several months ago at the theater and that a man who said his first name was Sam had brought the film to the theater.
This isn’t the first time the media has reacted too quickly to a series of rapidly unfolding events, said Yahya Kamalipour, a professor of mass and international communication at Purdue University-Calumet and editor of the book “The U.S. Media and the Middle East: Image and Perception.”
“It points to a problem in journalism and reporting,” he said. “Generally speaking, this is another problem with media reports: They do tend to assume to jump to conclusions without sufficient information, basing their reporting on prevailing stereotypical images of Muslims and the Middle East.”
The primary stereotype, he said, is that “Islam is somehow synonymous with terrorism.”
Nia-Malika Henderson and Manuel Roig-Franzia contributed to this report.