Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman slammed the news media for reporting false claims this week that Jewish donors and filmmakers were responsible for an anti-Muslim film that has been tied to violent protests in Egypt and Libya.
"I'm for 100 percent free speech, but [the press] must protect that great freedom responsibly," Foxman told TheWrap. "They've helped distribute a great libel, so the question is: What are they going to do to fix it?"
In the aftermath of the erroneous reporting, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press have both issued extensive corrections. But the erroneous coverage this week points to the dangers of chasing breaking news in the Internet age and the risk that even the most diligent reporters can easily be duped in the rush to be first with a story.
After the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, some media reports fingered a YouTube trailer for "Innocence of Muslims" with inciting unrest in the predominantly-Muslim countries. The film claims that Muhammad is a false prophet and a pedophile, among other deviances.
On Tuesday, a man identifying himself as Sam Bacile told the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal that he wrote and directed the film. He said he was an Israeli Jew who raised the $5 million in funding for the film from 100 anonymous Jewish donors.
However, those claims were subsequently disproved.
ABC News on Thursday night identified Los Angeles-area resident Nakoula Basseley Nakoula as the sole writer, director and financier of the movie. Nakoula is a convicted felon, who served time for manufacturing methamphetamine and, most recently, for bank fraud and was on probation. He is neither Jewish nor an Israeli citizen and ABC said the film was Nakoula's Coptic Christian in-laws in Egypt.
"Sources lie to us from time to time and we usually catch them at it," AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Michael Oreskes said in a statement to TheWrap. "This guy lied to us. We didn’t check it as we should have. But we quickly realized it and then did aggressive reporting that straightened out the story."
For his part, Foxman said that whoever was posing as the filmmaker behind "Innocence of Muslims" knew what he was doing by trying to push blame for the provocative film onto the Jewish community.
"I think the major intention was to deflect attention from himself," Foxman said Thursday. "Jews are the classic scapegoat, and he knows there is bad blood between Muslims and Jews, so he built on a lot of stereotypes to come up with this rationale."
Foxman said he hopes that the problematic early reports will encourage newspapers, websites and wire service to be less obsessed with scooping the competition and be more driven to report information factually.
"It's a wake up call to journalists that they have to do a better job of checking information, and I hope it will have ameliorative results," Foxman said.
"There's an irony here, because in this digital age, we've become more transparent, but less transparent also," he added. "It's harder to tell who is putting information out there."
The Wall Street Journal carried a correction in Thursday's paper, while the Associated Press sent out a correction over its wires on Friday afternoon.
"Subsequent reporting indicates that [Sam Bacile] is a pseudonym," the Wall Street Journal's correction reads. "In addition, claims by the person that he is an Israeli-American and that he raised $5 million from about 100 Jewish donors to fund the film weren't confirmed and should have been omitted.
There has been so much false reporting about the origins of the film at the center of this controversy and the mysterious biography of its director and producer that Foxman believes the Jewish community could find itself under attack. The ADL is a non-governmental organization that fights Anti-Semitism and discrimination.
"The Jewish community globally and in the Arab-Muslim world needs to be on high alert," Foxman told TheWrap. "I am worried [about violence], particularly in parts of the world where Jews are vulnerable."
"It's scary because I'm in the position of trying to protect Jews and somebody put us in the position to take blame for this," he added.