Steven Emerson, a man often called a "terrorism expert," appeared on Fox News on Sunday to put the Paris terror attacks in context. What followed was a sharp lesson in considering your source.
The international discussion of the two murderous attacks in Paris – against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market – has included far too many outrageous claims. And given the recent history of rushing into ruinous wars egged on by the promises of insta-experts peddling false information, Mr. Emerson deserves some attention. His efforts on Fox yesterday put him squarely in the middle of a know-nothing community of analysts whose careers are built on sounding the shrillest alarms, and encouraging the most drastic actions, in response to Islamist terrorism.
The tale begins with Emerson warning of a spread of Islamic thuggery across Europe. He claimed Muslim religious police now roam parts of London handing out beatings to people they deem in violation of Islamic law; he stated that the British city of Birmingham is 100 percent Muslim and that "non-Muslims simply don't go in."
Neither of his claims are remotely true, and ended up spawning the popular satirical Twitter hashtag #foxnewsfacts sending up his reality-challenged assertions. For instance:
But there's also something important here.
His claim wasn't about one of those exotic locales where people write in squiggly scripts and have very different cultural backgrounds. Or even about France, where they don't speak in English. It was the United Kingdom, where the language is English, the historical ties to the US are deep, and with which there's a constant cultural exchange (thanks Britain for John Oliver and for taking back Piers Morgan).
If Emerson knows this little about Britain, what can he possibly know about Egypt and Iraq and Syria and all the other nations he regularly opines on?
For the record, Birmingham is majority Christian, about 20 percent Muslim, and in as much as it has "no-go zones," they're enforced by the whites-only English Defense League.
Emerson has a track record of being outrageously ill-informed. Like the time he fingered a completely innocent Saudi student of involvement with the Boston marathon bombing. Or the time he said the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (carried out by white Christians) exhibited a "Middle Eastern trait" because it was designed to kill a lot of people. He also claimed that Oklahoma City in 1995 was "considered one of the largest centers of Islamic radical activity outside the Middle East."
Or that other time, in 2014, when he falsely asserted the FBI had denied basic assistance to Israel after a request with help tracking a soldier missing in Gaza. The FBI went so far as to publicly call Emerson's claims "incorrect and misleading."
Yet he pops up again and again being presented to the viewers and readers of America as an "expert," someone whose counsel should be heeded.
Emerson has since apologized for his claims about Britain. But, if anything, they've made things worse for him.
You may quote me on this as I will be posting this and taking out an ad in a Birmingham paper. I have clearly made a terrible error for which I am deeply sorry. My comments about Birmingham were totally in error. And I am issuing an apology and correction on my website immediately for having made this comment about the beautiful city of Birmingham. I do not intend to justify or mitigate my mistake by stating that I had relied on other sources because I should have been much more careful. There was no excuse for making this mistake and I owe an apology to every resident of Birmingham. I am not going to make any excuses. I made an inexcusable error. And I am obligated to openly acknowledge that mistake.
PS. I intend to make a donation to a Birmingham charity.
He appears to believe that he offended Birmingham sensibilities with his claim of an overwhelming and exclusive Muslim majority there and admits that he had no real knowledge of his own before making his confident "expert" assertions on TV. The apology admits his unsuitability to comment on terrorism, or culture, or demographics (it's not as if Britain's census findings aren't available online.)
The ball is now in Fox's court. The network is one of Emerson's last redoubts (in the not-too distant past he was also described as a terrorism expert by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR).
But there's a reasonable chance they'll stick with Emerson. Fox owner Rupert Murdoch probably would back him. The powerful media mogul called for the globe's 1.3 billion Muslims to be held collectively "responsible" for the actions of a tiny few after the Paris attacks.
I know Godwin's Law is invoked almost as frequently and erroneously as comparisons to the Nazis themselves. But Mr. Murdoch has strained into some very ugly territory here. Just substitute "Jews" for "Muslims" and "religious extremists" for "jihadis" (remember Baruch Goldstein?) and imagine how that would go down. But after Murdoch's comments? Barely a ripple.
Here's rule No. 1 after the Paris attacks, or any other terrorist attack: Be careful who you trust for information.