Commentary: The Lynching of a Lodi Family

by Fernando A. Torres on June 20, 2005

A Brief Chronicle of the Chronicle

In less than a week of recklessness reporting, the Bay Area media has destroyed a humble Pakistani family and three other men. The carnage was unbelievable. In a frenzy race for the ratings, the media descended to Lodi, a small town south of Sacramento, in search of the “terrorist cell” they learned about in a federal criminal complaint.

Everybody took at face value the veracity of an FBI affidavit and the most imaginative headlines started to come out of the editor’s brains. The San Francisco Chronicle, northern California biggest paper, went along with the FBI version with astonishing words; quotes and statements: terror cell, training with al-Qaida, how to kill Americans, terrorism inquiry to spread, number of people committed to al-Qaida have been operating in and around Lodi, to carry out his jihadi mission, targets include hospitals and food stores, and could have poisoned the ice cream.

But later, The Lodi Terror Investigation, as the Chronicle put it, could not be sustained by its own merits and started to crumble down to became just a single count of making a false statement and a simple case of immigration violation.

Although the paper was careful in citing every quote and fact, it committed the mistake of falling into the sensationalist reporting. A terrorist cell in our backyard is a very appealing headline for today’s American psychic. Just the word terror can sell a lots of things, a word that bring some kind of consensus, and now, a word that has become the media’s green light to mud anybody’s reputation.

We cannot assert that the desecration and public condemnation of this modest working family was premeditated, nevertheless the social insensitiveness shown by the media is extremely worrisome. Defense comments, neighbor’s positive remarks, the human side of the story started to come out, three, four stories later. Pictures of bin-Laden were published next to the Lodi men. What does that tell you? What does a Lodi resident is thinking now of her Pakistani family next door?

What happens if the FBI puts out a press communique and the media releases it? Thousands and thousands of people will know about it. But what happens if the charges are unfunded, and some “facts” are later erased as the FBI did? Who will restore the reputation of the innocent people affected? Who will bring back together a divided community? Who will erase the bigotry stamped on Lodi’s walls?

Following, a brief look at some of The Chronicle stories from clips and its web site (www.sfgate.com):

Tuesday, June 7.- The San Francisco Chronicle printed an AP story headlining “four Lodi men detained in possible terror cell.” The story is confusing. AP cited the Sacramento Bee citing “federal authorities,” and “court documents.” Careful in using words such as “possible,” “according to,” and “they believe,” the story is also clear in pointing out that a man is “accused of training in an al-Qaida camp in Pakistan to learn ‘how to kill Americans’…using photographs of…Bush as targets.”

Immediately, in the second paragraph, a father and his son’s names are made public. The third and four men’s names are also made public. But now the third paragraph said they are detained “on immigration violations.” The story’s own headline about the “FOUR men” results misleading. The popular words “terror cell” and “al-Qaida” are printed, before their names, in the first paragraph. The association of four innocent men with these words is made. Suddenly we have a terror cell in our backyard. The lynching of the Lodi family has begun.

Wednesday, June 8.- The Chronicle headline keeps insisting: “Two Lodi men arrested in possible terror cell.” Four are now down to two. No apologies for the other two. The AP story (01:52 PDT) now cited “published reports” as source of: “younger men allegedly acknowledged that he attended an al-Qaida camp in Pakistan…”

New hair-raising details are provided. AP cites a Sacramento Bee quote by Judge Nowinski who has more information than FBI agent John Cauthen does – “(the father) just returned from Pakistan where he (…) contributed financial assistance to an al-Qaida sponsored program training his son and others to kill Americans whenever and wherever they can be found.” What do you think American Lodi residents are now thinking about all of this?

The son is now accused of lying to the FBI. The story citing the FBI affidavit says that he asked (not clear to whom) to come to the US “to carry out his jihadi mission to attack hospitals and large food stores.” Is that a preemptive condemnation? The story finished with great affidavit bravado: The father “admitted…he provided a $100 monthly allowance to help his son attend the camp.” That is revealing. A good terrorist or a good father. I provided a $100 monthly to my daughter to attend a UC Santa Cruz camp where I have seen students using Bush pictures in a more embarrassing way than a practice target! By now, the media has landed in Lodi full geared. The theater of the absurd of the media-condemnation has set up camp. The merciless crucifixion of an innocent family is now in full swing.

Wednesday, June 8.- (08:31 PDT. AP) The story continues deflating; now the headline reads: “Father, son charged with lying about son’s training with al-Qaida.” Bylined by Mark Sherman the story adds new and grave comments by Nowinski; the father “was a flight risk and a danger to the community.” The other two men are now called “Muslim leaders.” The FBI says the son failed the polygraph test, and a machine becomes a key player. For the first time the defense is brought into the tale. Johnny Griffin III is quoted saying everything is “shocking” because “his client ‘is charged with nothing more than lying to an agent.'”

Wednesday, June 8.- (19:31 PDT) AP’s Don Thompson tries to keep the hip up. Now “a number of people committed to al-Qaida have been operating in and around Lodi.” There is a big difference from a “terror cell” to a “number of people committed” and “operating.” With an army of operating terrorist, I don’t want to get close to Lodi. But such amazing account is played down by Thompson himself in the next paragraph: “…investigators did not have information about any specific plans for an attack, and the father and son were charged only with lying.” The story cannot get more confusing and misleading.

Here’s another of Thompson citing an FBI agent: “We did not find these guys in the middle of executing a plan. That did not happen.” No doubt, by now Thompson is as confused as his readers! But his AP wire, for the first time, gives out a human angle. The working family of an ice cream vendor and cherry picker is described by friends and neighbors as “nice” people.

Wednesday, June 8.- (4:26pm) Lastly, The Chronicle sent two reporters for an “original” story on the case. Although they came back empty-handed, the headline is hardhearted: “…complaint says 22-year-old trained on ‘how to kill Americans.'” Besides scorning the accused, the reporters rushed to positive-quoted the accusers: the FBI “investigations had been appropriately and responsibly.” Before leaving town, the pair also pays a friendly visit to Lodi’s Mayor: “I’m glad to hear that the FBI is staying on top of federal criminal issues…,” said the unharmed Mayor.

Thursday, June 9.- Another phony Chronicle headline: “Feds charge father, son with al-Qaida link.” The deprecation continues. Those charges are not! The wire keeps repeating the same groundless accusations against the family. This time Bush is quoted saying something the media is NOT doing: “we’ll follow up…honoring the civil liberties of those to whom we follow up…” Does this include the family’s reputation and honor?

Thursday, June 9.- Another Chronicle exaggerated headline: “Terrorism inquiry to spread (FBI) question Bay Area residents associated with (Lodi) suspects…” This hysterical caption does not stand for the text that follows, for the 11th paragraph says the FBI retracted of early reports by deleting “a number of details” released early. Those “details” were the foundations of the panic-stricken reports by the local media: targets include hospitals and food stores; the name of a friend of the family that supposedly was running the training camp in Pakistan, and that, the son had met “hundreds of (international) attendees” at the Pakistan camp.

Thrown into the story is the name of a 19-year-old kid detained “on alleged immigration violations” not because of terrorists actions. Pictures of the family member are printed with the story. The Chronicle also published a national list of “terrorism-related cases” and included the name of the father and the son(?).

Thursday, June 9.- “Muslim shaken, fearful of backlash as after 9/11” After three days of mud-throwing, conflicting reporting, partial and alarmist FBI-friendly coverage, of culpability by association, of bonding the word Muslim with words such as extremists and terrorists, the SF Chronicle send a reporter to assess the damage inflicted to the Pakistani community in Lodi. This damage did not come with the FBI arrests, as reporter Vanessa Hua wrote, it came with the improper coverage by the local media who blindness followed FBI press releases and rushed to condemn four innocent beings.

Excepting a quote by Lodi Mayor who still believes “any town could have one or two,” bad guys, Hua does a fair job in showing the uncertainties and fears the Pakistani community now lives with. Merited Hua quotes of a Pakistani resident: “We are scared because of what happened, how other people will look at us;” “It’s sad to see this ruin people’s lives.”

Thursday, June 9.- (00:05 PDT) (13:30 PDT) Two stories by AP’s Thompson (who apparently did not noticed the deletions made by the FBI to its own affidavit) still quoting unproven facts such the plans to attack hospitals and supermarkets. AP continues to use the unconfirmed statement of a number of people committed to al-Qaida have been operating in and around Lodi.

Although the reporter assesses some of the Pakistani community’s worries, he still uses dramatic quotes such as the ones by Lodi’s Mayor “This would be an ideal place for them (the terrorist) to hide;” or “Come to Lodi and meet our Terrorist.” Other voices brought in by Thompson includes someone who “worries (the father) could have poisoned the ice cream,” or that a resident “blamed Pakistani service station owner for driving up local gasoline prices.”

Friday, June 10.- The Chronicle’s internet site carries three AP and one original story. All four of them gravitated around the same facts. One – 00:03 PDT – refers to divisions and power struggles between Lodi’s Islamic factions. “The link to Lodi isn’t surprising,” wrote AP’s Thompson, who dug out a LA retired FBI agent for this hysterical quote: “That entire region, all of the area around there, became a very big area of Arab settlement.”

The stories are now quoting the lawyers of the family. Better late than never! One of these reports has an FBI agent saying “investigator have found no immediate terrorist threat.” The big terrorists-in-our-backyard case continues collapsing.

The Chronicle’s own story this day is, to say the least, disgusting. Pure Orwellian doublespeak. The paper keep the same sensationalist tone of an implied terrorist cell been caught while saying none of them “has been charged* with any terrorist violation…(and there is)… no evidence that any of them was planning terrorist acts.” That would be enough for any sane editor to stop the story dead. But not for the Chronicle which keep and keep going, with paragraphs after paragraphs of FBI bragging, inexistent linkages and spectacular quotes. (* See July 9 Chron’s headline: Feds charge father, son with al-Qaida link)

The picture selection is nauseating misleading: A photo of a Lodi mosque next to a photo of one of the man arrested, next to a photo of a man who allegedly ran a terrorist camp, next to a photo of bin Laden! Do you find any association here? Anyone?

Saturday, June 11.- Bail Denied for Lodi man – Judge says he is a flight risk. Finally, the man of our worse nightmares, our back-yard terrorist is charged, but, “with a single count of making a false statement.” For lying. Yes! For lying just as Bush did when he said that out of the 400 arrests in terrorist investigations more than half have been convicted. (Washington Post investigations revealed that out of those 400, only 39 persons have been convicted!)

Sunday, June 12.- The Chronicle reports that Pakistan officials and Islamic scholars deny the FBI terror camps claims. On the same page, above a different story, another headline reads: Terror arrest devolving to charges of lesser crimes. Inadvertently, this title summarized The Lodi Terror Investigation fiasco.

Monday, June 13.- The Chronicle is silent. There is no reporting on the case except for a hypocritical editorial criticizing Bush for revealing “misleading” numbers of convicted terrorists: “It’s that kind of dissembling that makes us cautious about accepting at face value the veracity of terrorist charges leveled against a handful of men in Lodi…more verifiable information is needed before coming to that conclusion.”

Whoever wrote these words did not read the paper’s own stories for the past seven days! The Chronicle did the very opposite of this editorial’s pray. It did not act cautiously and it did take at face value the veracity of the terrorist charges. No apology followed. For the time being the innocent family and the other men still sitting in a dirty cell.

Fernando A. Torres is a freelance journalist graduated from San Francisco State University


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