The ‘facts’ from Benghazi

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Almost from the moment some 3,000 Salafist protesters and football fans started gathering outside the U.S. embassy compound in Cairo yesterday, the press was spitting all over itself trying to get a handle on the story as it developed. How they did depends on who you believe, and what you think the purpose of up-to-the-minute journalism really is.

An insane anti-Muslim film is supposed to have been the proximate cause of the unease, which seems to have spread across North Africa to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But so far it is only really the Muslim Brotherhood and national leaders sympathetic to them that have explicitly linked the protests to the film. (The Department of Defense doesn't think they're connected, according to a recent report from CNN, but who knows if that's just self-serving?)

In Cairo, little happened except that some 12 of the demonstrators were able to scale a wall, replace the American flag with a black one proclaiming Mohammed prophet (it's a popular Salafist standard), and last night at press time it was enough for the New York Post to make a front page out of.

But that was before the violence in Benghazi escalated, and ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.

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The identity of the filmmaker, reported by The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press early in the unfolding of the violence, is now in question. Contrary to that report, he may not be real, and "Sam Bacile" is probably not his name; he may not be in real estate and he may not be an Israeli or even a Jew. Nevertheless we are right now being told by several news outlets that he has gone into hiding. Not that we know who he is or whether his entire persona is an elaborate hoax.

If you relied on the Post report, you wouldn't have known that the ambassador was killed. You would believe that Florida pastor Terry Jones helped produce the video (you remember him: he burned Korans in a church, which touched off a wave of anti-American violence in Afghanistan not long ago). He didn't, apparently. You'd also be left with the information coming from the Egyption state-run news service, that the video was produced in the U.S. by "US-based anti-Muslim Coptic-Christian Egyptians." (Now that Bacile seems like a cipher, maybe we'll be back to that assessment soon enough!)

Early reports, fueled by social media, showed pictures of a man who was apparently Stevens. Several pointed to it as evidence that Stevens was killed by being dragged into a crowd of rioters. Reputable international news organizations went with this version of the story, with varying degrees of credulity, for a while, despite a Getty Images caption (provided by the photographer) that made it clear that the picture showed sympathetic Libyans bringing the injured (not dead) ambassador to a hospital.

Throughout this frenzy in which everything was reported and little seemed to be seriously vetted, The New York Times got brickbats for being slow to produce a report confirming Stevens' death, among other details out of Benghazi and Cairo.

I was hitting refresh all morning for more and more reports, getting conflicting ones, trying to parse out the truth; and of course, I only had to wait an hour or two for most of the dust to settle.

The rest of the things to be untangled are largely questions I'd never have had if I hadn't read so much that was confusing or untrue early in the morning today. (Note to reader: I haven't linked to some of these reports because old, inaccurate information has since been stripped away without corrections explaining the changes.)

What's the right balance between restraint and aggressive repeating and redistributing of other people's reports? (Remember, retweets aren't endorsements, usually! But they can spread falsehood at the speed of light.) I'm not sure.

I do know that as a news consumer I'd have been perfectly well served waiting an hour to get a version of the story that a responsible news organization felt it could support.