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The Plot Against America

(AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
"TUNNEL BOMB PLOT" trumpeted the New York Daily News this morning on its cover, the words printed in big bold white letters against a black background. Jihadists, said the paper, had a "serious" plot to flood lower Manhattan by bombing the Holland Tunnel, "to drown the Financial District as New Orleans was by Hurricane Katrina."

Frightening? Sure. "Serious?" Well, the jury is still out. The "largely aspirational" plot never went beyond e-mails, there was no credible link to Al Qaeda, and there was no specific mention of the Holland Tunnel, just the mass transit system more generally; additionally, sources say "no one in the United States ever took part in the Internet conversations and…no one ever purchased any explosives or scouted the transit system."

The plot as the Daily News conceived it seemed absurd enough that one would have thought it would have given editors pause – how does one flood lower Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel, seeing as the island is above the level of the river? But that didn't stop the paper from rushing its inaccurate story into print and trumpeting it with BIG BOLD LETTERS, and it didn't stop other news organizations from turning the alleged plot into a huge story. That's no surprise, of course. When people speak of bias in the press, they tend to talk abut political bias, but the more serious bias is towards sensationalism, which tends to sell better. (It's safe to say the Daily News moved a few more copies this morning than usual.)

The press isn't the only party with an incentive to play up these kinds of stories. Look at the last major terror bust, of a Miami-based group allegedly plotting to take out the Sears Tower in Chicago. The government trumpeted the arrest as evidence of its success in fighting terrorism, and there's no doubt the bust was a good thing. But Andrew Cohen read the indictment, and wrote that "nothing in [it] convinces me that these guys were legitimate terrorist wannabes as opposed to a bunch of angry bozos looking lazily for al Qaeda to hook them up with all sorts of goodies." Cohen cites a series of government charges that turned out to be less than they first appeared -- John Lindh, Zacarias Moussaoui, Yaser Esam Hamdi, Jose Padilla – to explain his cynicism.

The truth is that it's difficult to tell how serious the Miami plot was, just as it's difficult to judge the seriousness of this most recent case. But because the parties involved – the media and the government – often have an incentive to assume (and trumpet) the worst, news consumers should be particularly careful to look beyond the headlines and the crawl when it comes to these kinds of stories. The media is almost never at its best when reporting on terror plots, and today brought us one more example of how restrained, accurate reporting can go out the window when journalists are given the choice between healthy skepticism and reckless sensationalism.