It's no secret newspapers are struggling financially. Virtually every week brings new reports about vast layoffs and cutbacks. There are fewer pages with fewer stories. So it's more than a little confusing to see a major metropolitan daily send a reporter halfway around the world to tell half a story.
The St. Petersburg Times on Monday offered readers just that in a heart-tugging update on Mazen Al-Najjar and his new life in Egypt.
Al-Najjar, whose sister is Sami Al-Arian's wife, was deported by the U.S. in 2002 after a five-year fight in which he was held without bond for more than four years based in part on secret evidence linking him to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Al-Najjar's saga made news in Florida for more than five years leading up to his deportation. The Times' news stories adopted a sympathetic narrative early on, casting him as a humble, peace-loving family man caught up in an overzealous federal investigation that had little to do with him and everything to do with his brother-in-law. That continued with reporter Meg Laughlin's front-page profile of Al-Najjar's life today:
"The former University of South Florida instructor has had to overcome financial ruin, bouts of anxiety, the breakup of his family, diabetes and most recently a diagnosis of soft tissue cancer.
When Al-Najjar left Tampa on a charter jet in August 2002 headed for nobody-knew-where, he left behind more than 2,000 news stories, a documentary film on his case, and thousands of supporters who had protested his incarceration on secret evidence. The Palestinian was accused of having connections to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group."
No further mention of the PIJ is made in the story. That's par for the course, as the newspaper has yet to take an introspective look at its coverage or to fact-check the claims by Al-Najjar and his family to see how that portrayal holds up. Laughlin's story offers readers no hint that she reviewed any records or asked Al-Najjar so much as one challenging question about whether he deceived those thousands of supporters.
He did. Repeatedly. One reason Al-Najjar drew scrutiny from immigration officials was their belief that he entered into a sham marriage in 1984 in order to gain permanent U.S. residency. Al-Najjar and his relatives testified in his deportation case that the marriage was genuine and loving. Yet his first wife told officials the marriage was a favor to her boyfriend to help Al-Najjar get a green card.
"Mazen and I never lived together," she wrote, "never consummated [sic] the marriage!"
In 2000, Al-Najjar took the stand again, seeking to challenge the secret evidence and be released on bond while appealing a final deportation order. It was a convincing performance in which he denounced terrorism and the PIJ itself. "I disagree with violence," Al-Najjar said. "It is not a good part of the experience of mankind. It may be the worst part. I don't think violence is the way to solve conflict."
Since then, evidence released at Al-Arian's criminal trial shows Al-Najjar actually served on the PIJ Majlis Shura, or the terrorist group's governing board. Agents found air bills showing that Al-Najjar shipped materials to PIJ founder Fathi Shikaki in Damascus. Other evidence indicates he received a salary from the PIJ. In an April 1994 telephone call, Al-Arian and Al-Najjar express their frustration with "those from Damascus" and infighting among PIJ Shura Council members.
This set of facts doesn't fit into the Times story. Laughlin does mention that, after being deported to Lebanon, he was picked up by a sister. Unmentioned is the sister's marriage to Mohammed Tyseer Al-Khatib, the PIJ's treasurer. Federal agents intercepted dozens of telephone calls and fax transmissions showing infighting among PIJ board members over money. Al-Khatib was in the center of it.
It was Al-Khatib who sent Al-Najjar nearly $100,000 in 1992. Bank records show Al-Najjar held it, divided it into different accounts, then sent it back in February 1994. He testified he was merely holding it for his brother in law, Al-Khatib, and was fishing for a better interest rate.
But Al-Najjar returns the money to Beirut at the heart of a financial crisis that threatened the PIJ's very existence.
Laughlin does tell readers that Al-Arian pleaded guilty in 2006 to one count of conspiring to provide goods and services to a terrorist group. However, she doesn't specify that the group in question was the PIJ, or that Al-Najjar is among the group's associates Al-Arian conspired to assist.
Back in 2000, when Al-Najjar testified under oath at his bond hearing, he lied about another PIJ associate, Ramadan Shallah, the group's secretary general since 1995. Al-Najjar worked with Shallah at a Tampa think-tank called the World and Islam Studies enterprise. Four PIJ Shura Council members – Al-Arian, Al-Najjar, Shallah and Basheer Nafi – worked there.
But Al-Najjar denied knowing Shallah had any connection with the PIJ. The Tampa Tribune reported that:
"Al-Najjar said he was disappointed to learn of his former colleague's appointment. ‘He ruined his own academic career,' Al-Najjar said. ‘He was going to be a very fine academician.'"
In paragraph "m" of his plea agreement, Al-Arian admits Al-Najjar was part of cover-up about WISE's knowledge about Ramadan Shallah's true identity and role with the PIJ.
Similarly, Al-Najjar denied that the charity he helped run, the Islamic Committee for Palestine (ICP), was in any way connected to or supportive of the PIJ. When federal officials released this video, showing a Cleveland imam referring to the charity as "the active arm" of the PIJ, Al-Najjar pleaded ignorance and said it was untrue. The imam, Fawaz Damra, cited PIJ murders in soliciting contributions.
When that video was played during Al-Arian's 2005 conspiracy trial, Laughlin described Damra as someone who "since become an advocate for dialogue and peace between Muslims and Jews." She didn't mention, or didn't even know, that Damra had been convicted in June 2004 for lying on immigration papers by failing to disclose his links in the United States including to the PIJ.
It is interesting that Times editorial writers often have proven more aggressive toward Al-Arian than their reporters. Al-Arian was acquitted of nine of the 17 charges against him in December 2005 and jurors deadlocked on the other eight counts. Al-Arian advocates cast the verdict as a full exoneration, but the Times editorialized:
"Even though Al-Arian was not convicted of supporting terrorist acts, he stands exposed for what he is - a carrier of hate. He is not just an innocent academic with unpopular views about the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, as he has so often claimed, or a ‘prisoner of conscience.' The trial demonstrated that Al-Arian was deeply connected to the PIJ, which is believed responsible for more than 100 deaths in the Middle East. He was described by his own lawyers as a fundraiser for the "charitable arm of the PIJ." And Al-Arian was not blind to the group's monstrous tactics, as he was the regular recipient of faxes announcing the group's suicide bombings."
Again, readers are reminded of none of this in Laughlin's latest story. Can Times editors cite another example in which a source is exposed for having lied to them about the very issue that makes him newsworthy, yet the paper continued to cast him in a sympathetic light with no apparent challenge to anything he has to say?
Despite cutbacks, the Times remains an outstanding newspaper with talented investigative reporters. It's too bad none have been tasked with comparing the warm and fuzzy public personas with the harsher reality in the record. A story updating the life of a newsmaker can be justified, even at the expense of flying a reporter to Cairo at a time of deep cutbacks. But to achieve balance, to serve its readers, the Times should tell the whole story or nothing at all.