Accuracy in Media

By Wes Vernon

A former spokesman for the Taliban government of Afghanistan is now a student at Yale on a student visa. One of his courses is “Terrorism: Past, Present, and Future.” A freelance cameraman/producer who has worked for CBS helped the young man get to Yale and along the way, reports the New York Times, the student was also offered a job at CNN. Yale officials prize this as a diversity pick, and quickly signed him up lest Harvard beat them to it.

At first blush, all of that would seem to be a bad joke. But it’s true, and Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Armed Services, Budget and Judiciary committees, is not amused. The Texas Republican has written the Department of Homeland Security reminding Secretary Michael Chertoff that “an alien is inadmissible or removable on terror-related grounds if he is a representative of any designated or nondesignated terrorist organization.”

The New York Times Magazine on Feb. 26 ran a long article headlined, “He was the Taliban’s spin doctor. So what’s he doing at Yale?”

About 95% of those who apply for admission to Yale (most with outstanding scholastic records) are rejected. That raises the question as to how Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, with a fourth grade education and a “high school equivalency” degree, got such a helping hand and/or approval from the federal government, the media, and academia. We’re not talking here about another candidate for admission whose scholastic credentials were at the very least questionable. We are talking about a former high official of a government that wanted to wipe Western Civilization off the map. Attempting to unravel how all this came about and who is responsible is something akin to trying to nail jello to the wall.

The Media Role

The sympathetic portrayal of Rahmatullah in the New York Times article is misleading in places. It leaves the clear impression that Mike Hoover?the cameraman who befriended Rahmatullah?was on assignment for CBS News. CBS tells AIM the network has had no contact whatsoever with Hoover since 1992. Re-reading the relevant part of the article that connected Hoover with CBS, and with a lawyer’s pinpoint- dotted “I” and crossed “T” perspective, one finds wording to the effect that while Hoover has indeed done work in Afghanistan for CBS in the past, it does not specifically say that he was working for that news outlet during his more recent visit there though?again?the wording does leave that impression. Exactly who was Hoover’s client on that occasion? We don’t know. The article doesn’t say. CBS said it had no contact information on him.

The author of the New York Times article, a freelance writer named Chip Brown, simply describes Hoover as “one of the few news cameramen who had been given Taliban permission to visit Afghanistan” at that time. Rahmatullah had been assigned as Hoover’s “guide and translator.” The two struck up a friendship that ultimately led to the young student’s admission to Yale.

The secrecy surrounding Hoover’s precise role here (He has been  dodging the media since the New York Times magazine article) has caused some to wonder if perhaps this is all a U.S. intelligence operation through which Rahmatullah was being rewarded as an informer. But Center for Security Policy president Frank Gaffney, in a conversation prior to a speech at an AIM luncheon, concurred in the belief that this is more likely what it appears to be: a case of too many people in government, the media, and certainly academia not understanding the nature of the enemy and going along with a politically correct “diversity” move. (Gaffney appeared at the AIM luncheon to discuss his book, War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World).

The New York Times quotes Hoover as saying Rahmatullah, while enrolled at Yale, would be something of a teacher/ambassador.

A Media Curiosity

Liberal media outlets seem to be fascinated with the young man who was an official apologist for a regime that extracted women’s fingernails if they wore fingernail polish, and loaded up women in the back of pickup trucks, drove them around a stadium with leashes around their necks, and then shot them through the head for violating Islamic law. 

Prior to ending up at Yale, according to the magazine, Rahmatullah had seriously “considered taking up a friend’s offer to work part time for CNN.” CNN headquarters in Atlanta claims to be “unaware” of any such offer, though of course, without the name of the person who possibly made an informal offer, it would take some effort to get a yes or no answer from among CNN’s personnel scattered around the far-flung corners of the earth.

Freelance writer Chip Brown is avoiding inquiries as to the identity of the “friend” who made the CNN offer and also the identity of whoever gave Hoover the “news” assignment to be in Afghanistan at that particular time. Rahmatullah has been seen on Fox News running away from a camera and reporter seeking answers, though both he and Hoover had spoken freely with Brown.

State Department spokesman Justin Higgins told AIM that Rahmatullah had applied for the student visa in Islamabad, Pakistan (The New York Times article said he had applied in Peshawar, Pakistan). Higgins said granting him the visa was “an inter-agency decision.”

I told him we were not interested in the names of the faceless government workers who may have waved the approval through the paperwork machine that defines much of the federal infrastructure. What AIM wanted to know was this: Who was the person who had all the facts in front of him?the person whose responsibility it was to ask all the right questions? Who was tasked with certifying that the applicant was okay and that?in the “inter-agency” vetting?ex-Taliban spokesman or not?there were no red flags and Rahmatullah was qualified for a student visa in the United States?

Higgins replied that the person who made final judgment and pronounced the application valid and worthy was “the interviewing officer” at the embassy. However, the State Department spokesman said he was forbidden by law to identify the officer by name.

So the decision was made by everybody and nobody. This is the very type of unaccountability that leads to ridicule of the federal bureaucracy on the late-night TV shows and elsewhere. The spokesman for an enemy regime is allowed into the United States in violation of the law (according to Senator Cornyn’s letter), but it is also a violation of the law to hold anyone responsible. So the buck stops nowhere.

Or maybe not. Going after another link in the “inter-agency” chain, Senator Cornyn may have better luck with the Homeland Security Department than we had with State. He reminds Secretary Chertoff that Rahmatullah was part of a regime that “gave safe haven and other material support to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and continued to do so even after the terrorist attacks of September 11th.” The senator demands to know “whether the Department of Homeland Security will seek to deport [Rahmatullah] under one of the terror-related grounds of removal.”

Senator Cornyn notes that the 9/11 commission found “that the key officials responsible for determining alien admissions (consular officials abroad and immigration inspectors in the United States) were not considered full partners in counter-terrorism efforts prior to September 11, 2001, and as a result, opportunities to intercept the September 11 terrorists were missed.”

His U.S. Job

Prior to 9/11, Rahmatullah was in the U.S. visiting editorial boards and reporters at news-papers around the country, defending the Taliban and excusing bin Laden, whom he described as a “guest” of his government and adding there was “no proof” bin Laden was actually tied to a terrorist bombing, as if taking refuge in a land dominated by a terrorist regime were the actions of an innocent man.

John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, in a series of articles (on the Journal’s website Opinion, with a follow-up on the Journal’s print op-ed page on March 23) has bird-dogged this story starting the day the Times magazine article appeared. He has cited the outrage of Yale alumni, both liberals and conservatives (This is no “right-wing” issue). Two protesting Yale alums?Clinton Taylor and Debbie Bookstaber?received an angry e-mail from Alexis Suronov, assistant director of giving at Yale Law School, saying in part, “What’s the matter with you? Are you retarded?” The e-mail was anonymous, but easily traced.

Suronov told Fund he was “only vaguely aware of Taliban practices.” That sums up the core problem right there. Yale was turning aside all requests for interviews on its Taliban student, issuing only a short, written statement resembling a description of the arsonist who rushes in to put out the fire. Yale notes that Rahmatullah “escaped the wreckage of Afghanistan” and that “universities are places of understanding, especially of the most difficult issues that face the world.”

Interesting that an official of the regime that created the “wreckage” could “escape” it. Would Yale have proffered “understanding” to Hitler’s propagandist Joseph Goebbels had he “escaped” Nazi Germany and applied for a visa? What about an aspiring mob lawyer who says there is “no proof” that he did not “escape” joining all those dead bodies buried in a vacant lot in Queens?

During his pre-9/11 PR visit to the U.S., Rahmatullah (whose official title was “second foreign secretary”) wore white baggy pants, an official turban, complete with the full beard expected of a good Taliban rep. Now, on the Yale campus, the facial hair is cut short, including a mustache. He wears regular student clothing, complete with backpack. These days, he could pass for any Keokuk, Iowa farm boy.

Senator Cornyn wants DHS to brief him on its progress “in assigning officers to the consulate in Islamabad [as provided by law] and whether those officers are fully integrated into the visa screening process.”

This story has been kept alive by talk radio, Fox News, and the Internet. After the fawning New York Times magazine article, there has been little or no follow-up by the mainstream media. If Yale alumnus George W. Bush holds a news conference anytime soon, it would be interesting to see if the White House reporters can divert their attention from the silly Valerie Plame case just long enough to direct a question to him about the Taliban spokesman at his alma mater.

Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer & broadcast journalist.



Helen Thomas is arguably a poster child for everything the public dislikes about the Washington media. Liberal bias. Publicly opinionated. Given to cheap-shot questions. An exaggerated sense of Inside-the-Beltway wisdom.

The 85-year-old doyenne of the White House press corps is also a candid proponent of the double standard. One for herself and her fellow pressies; the other for the President of the United States.

Last year, she was furious at Albert Eisele, editor of The Hill newspaper, because he quoted her when she said, “The day Dick Cheney is going to run for president, I’ll kill myself. All we need is one more liar.”

When her words showed up in print, according to the Drudge Report, she claimed they were for Eisele’s ears only. “I’ll never talk to another reporter again!” she muttered.

Strange that Thomas would be so shocked at being quoted for saying an unlikely candidacy by Vice President Cheney would drive her to suicide (obviously a form of expression not to be taken literally), and that the V.P. was “another liar.”

Open Mouth Policy

She had already openly stated in public that President Bush was “the worst president in all of American history” and that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was “a G__damn liar.” So what’s new in calling Cheney “another liar?”

As for expecting a fellow reporter to respect her right to a private rant without being quoted in the media, one recalls that during the Reagan years, she was quoted as suggesting reporters be allowed to be present in the Oval Office all day to witness the president’s conversations.

In recent years, Helen Thomas has officially been an “opinion journalist,” and thus is under no obligation to be “objective.” She writes a column for the Hearst newspaper chain, although few papers carry it on a regular basis. However, though she seriously claims she “censored” herself for 50 years, her questions at the White House briefings were no less thinly disguised liberal speechifying during all the time she was writing for United Press International (UPI) than when she became a columnist. If she “censored” herself, it’s difficult to imagine what she would have added.

Understand that tough questioning from reporters is an honorable professional pursuit. No politician calls a press conference to announce bad news. If reporters don’t ask the hard questions, you will learn only what the politicians want you to know.

On A Soapbox

The basic issue is: at what point does the responsibility to question the president or his spokesman morph into a political soapbox oration? On that point, Thomas has crossed the line and should not be confused with Sam Donaldson shouting at President Reagan as he heads for the helicopter (Donaldson claimed?rightly or wrongly?that was the only way he could get answers) or even David Gregory badgering Scott McClellan (a temper tantrum on Gregory’s part).

Helen Thomas’s style of questioning is in a category all by itself in terms of style and frequency as, for example, in an exchange that followed the U.S. capture of an American citizen, John Walker Lindh, who had been fighting against his country and for the Taliban in Afghanistan. He had met with al-Qaeda officials including Osama bin Laden himself and had been trained to use poisons and explosives.

Media sympathy for this quisling was apparent, most clearly by Thomas, who accused U.S. authorities of being “so primitive” as to ship Lindh “in a box” and deny him the right to see a lawyer. “I mean is that America?” she protested. 

When then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Lindh was treated according to all the rules of the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war and that “military and intelligence agencies may question prisoners for information of military value without the presence of a lawyer,” Thomas would have none of it. She bemoaned the fact that Lindh had not seen a lawyer or his parents.

FLEISCHER:  He has been given medical care?which he was not receiving under the Taliban. And he has received the protection of the United States Armed Forces in a very dangerous battlefield condition.

THOMAS: And he’s being interrogated without a lawyer. Is that fair?

FLEISCHER: He’s being given all his rights, which are far more than the rights the Taliban or the al Qaeda extended anybody living there.

THOMAS: Well, we’re not comparing ourselves, are we?

FLEISCHER: He is being treated as someone who fought against the United States in an armed conflict. And he is being treated well.

Translation: No, Helen, prisoners of war are not read their Miranda rights.

When Thomas was still with UPI, President Bush cut her off from the privilege of ending news conferences with, “Thank you, Mr. President,” a tradition accorded to her as senior wire service reporter

Helen Thomas has also fired hard questions at Democratic presidents, though they have generally been less ideological, and it is hardly a badge of courage to ask President Clinton, “Do you think there is a right-wing cabal in the press against you?” When Clinton was credibly accused of rape, Thomas’s question as to what advice he would offer future presidents was something of a howler. But observing in public that Clinton “tarnished the presidency” hardly requires insight.  With all the criminal activity in the Clinton White House, that is the worst she can say about him. George W. Bush, by contrast, is “a fascist?a fascist, I tell you [Comment to NewsMax].”

Moreover, Thomas’s qualms about Clinton were less evident when she introduced him at an event in Washington October 9, 2001: “To me and millions of others, President Clinton has always personified [the human spirit]. He is the man from Hope. We miss him. Thank you, Mr. President.”

So the media in Washington are liberal. What else is new? Why focus on this one individual?

Influential Figure

Conservative presidents, while disliking Thomas, have used her as a foil, believing that some of her “Have you stopped beating your wife” questions will be discounted as coming from a crank. And indeed, outside the Beltway much of the public does view Helen Thomas in that light. But she cannot be so easily dismissed.

The World Almanac has cited her as one of the 25 most influential women in America.  Moreover, what is not widely understood is that a huge and influential segment of the Washington journalism fraternity treats her almost as if she walked on water. Why? Most of what Helen Thomas says is no more outrageous than what many reporters say at journalist watering holes but dare not say publicly lest their credibility be compromised. 

They have honored her (a past president of the Washington Press Club), and quietly contemplate ways of honoring her memory when she departs.

There seems to be little media embarrassment that the “dean” of White House correspondents has turned some press briefings into something resembling a comedy skit on Saturday Night Live.

A nation at war would normally expect more serious White House dialogue than:

THOMAS: Does the president consider this [election] a mandate to fulfill his agenda? Going to war in Iraq, privatizing social Security, weakening the Civil Service Commission and so forth?

FLEISCHER: Helen, you sound like a commercial that didn’t work.

What You Can Do

Please send the enclosed cards or cards and letters of your own choosing to Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. of the New York Times and Donald E. Graham of the Washington Post. Also, make sure to order the new AIM “Terror Television” DVD.

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Join us by donating to AIM today.


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