Tuesday, September 24, 2002


Gina Lubrano, ombudsman for The San Diego Union-Tribune, covers a couple if interesting issues today. The first entails prominent coverage of a (to me) bizarre ritual, practiced by some Orthodox Jews on Yom Kippur, which involves swinging a live chicken over someone’s head. This is supposed to transfer the person’s sins to the chicken. The bird is then sacrificed and given to the poor. The newspaper ran a photo of the ritual, which prompted a letter from the regional director of the anti-Defamation League who described it as “grotesque,” and wrote that:

It was as if they decided to show a picture that ostensibly represented how the Jewish community prayed on the high holy days by using the most extreme image representing a very small part of Judaism.

Lubrano also quotes from an Orthodox rabbi who, naturally, disagrees.

I suspect that most religions have practices and rituals that would seem bizarre if published with little context in a newspaper. The early Romans misunderstood the Christian sacraments and at least some considered Christians to be secret cannibals. Many Mormons wear “sacred garments” under their clothes. There’s nothing wrong with publishing this information, but it is important that the practices and rituals be explained and placed in proper context for readers. From the description Lubrano gives, that may not have been the case here.

More disturbing is The Union-Tribune’s complicity in revealing that Abdussattar Shaikh, a leader of the local Muslim community, was an FBI informant – an allegation he denies. Shaikh is reported to have unwittingly rented rooms to two of the 9/11 hijackers. The Union-Tribune was not the first source to reveal his status as an informant, that dubious honor going to Newsweek and “television reporters.” Nevertheless the newspaper confirmed that Shaikh was an informant, prompting complaints. One reader cancelled his subscription because the newspaper had placed Shaikh in “jeopardy.”

Lubrano apparently justifies this revelation on the grounds that Shaikh had denied he was an informer and in the context of supposed intelligence failures prior to 9/11. She writes that:

Because of what may be happenstance, Shaikh is in a difficult position. Yet the Union-Tribune's credibility would be at stake if it failed to report the news.

The likely consequences of their revelation are that Shaikh’s life is in danger, his future usefulness as an informer is gone and his example will dissuade other potential informers. If The Union-Tribune believes that Shaikh was duplicitous in his role as an FBI informer then they should come out and say so and put the evidence before their readers. Otherwise the news value of the information escapes me.

Lubrano doesn’t state why The Union-Tribune’s credibility would be at stake if it didn’t confirm to the world that Abdussattar Shaikh was an FBI informer. There is a war going on, and The Union-Tribune is doing their public a disservice by publishing this sort of unnecessary information. Unfortunately they are not alone.

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