The prime-time smearing of Sami Al-Arian

By pandering to anti-Arab hysteria, NBC, Fox News, Media General and Clear Channel radio disgraced themselves -- and ruined an innocent professor's life.

Published January 19, 2002 8:56PM (EST)

It may not provide him much comfort, but tenured University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, recently fired after his appearance on a conservative talk show revived discredited, years-old allegations of ties to anti-Israel terrorists, may be the first computer science professor ever mugged by four of the nation's most influential news organizations.

USF administrators fired the Kuwaiti-born professor after he appeared on national television for five minutes of punditry last fall. His crime? Not telling viewers that his views did not necessarily reflect those of the school. It was a tortured rationale that all but guaranteed future litigation.

As Salon recently reported, the Al-Arian episode raises disturbing questions about free speech, academic freedom and the future of tenured status. But what's also important to understand is the crucial role the press played in the unfolding saga.

The University of South Florida is ultimately responsible for firing Al-Arian. But equally culpable are Fox News Channel, NBC, Media General (specifically its Tampa newspaper) and the giant radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all four media giants, eagerly tapping into the country's mood of vengeance and fear, latched onto the Al-Arian story, fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home.

The story went national when Al-Arian was invited on the Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" show back on Sept. 26. Host Bill O'Reilly revived inflammatory charges against Al-Arian dating back, in some cases, 15 years. Those charges were that a now-defunct Islamic think tank Al-Arian founded and ran in conjunction with USF operated as a sort of home away from home for radical Palestinians and terrorists. The charges had been thoroughly investigated and rejected by USF, and an immigration judge; the FBI has been looking for years and has never filed any charges.

Not even his harshest critics suggest Al-Arian has done anything in the last five years that could be even remotely construed as aiding terrorist organizations. The entire controversy sprang from the fact that viewers became enraged after old allegations were re-aired, albeit often in mangled form, by O'Reilly.

O'Reilly's accusatory and hectoring interrogation of Al-Arian, filled with false statements and McCarthy-like smears, climaxed in a chilling parting shot in which the host repeatedly told his stammering guest that if he were with the CIA, "I'd follow you wherever you went" -- clearly implying that he believed Al-Arian was a terrorist. Not surprisingly in the fearful and hysterical climate after Sept. 11, the show resulted in a torrent of angry calls, including death threats against al-Arian, to USF.

Before firing him, USF placed Al-Arian on paid leave, saying his presence made the campus unsafe and pointing to an avalanche of hate mail and death threats.

But the Gulf Coast hysteria was entirely created by the media. Without the Tampa Tribune, which undertook a dubious seven-year crusade against al-Arian, there would have been no story to begin with. Without "The O'Reilly Factor" -- a showcase for noisy right-wing ranting whose producers apparently didn't even know that Al-Arian had been cleared of charges before they handed him over to their equally ignorant hanging-judge host -- the controversy would never have been revived. Without incendiary, know-nothing Clear Channel radio jocks, led by a gentleman named Bubba the Love Sponge, there would almost certainly have been far fewer USF death threats. And without NBC's sloppy work on "Dateline" there would probably have been no firing.

The Al-Arian story reveals what happens when journalists, abandoning their role as unbiased observers, lead an ignorant, alarmist crusade against suspicious foreigners who in a time of war don't have the power of the press or public sympathy to fight back. It's called a pile-on, and this game first began in Tampa, seven years ago.

On April 21, 1995, Tampa Tribune reporter Michael Fechter wrote a news story about the bombing at the Oklahoma City federal building, which had been destroyed two days earlier by domestic right-wing terrorists. Law enforcement officials had yet to make an arrest, but Fechter had his own ideas. "More and more," he wrote, "terrorism experts in the United States and elsewhere say Wednesday's bombing in Oklahoma City bears the characteristics of other deadly attacks linked to Islamic militants."

Fechter seemed to be an odd choice to write the piece, since at the time the county news reporter had virtually no experience covering religion, politics or terrorism for the Tribune. Instead, he wrote crime stories, covered local city council politics and monitored neighborhood action groups.

But what readers didn't know was that Fechter had recently befriended controversial terrorism expert Steve Emerson -- who has been accused of sloppy journalism and with having a pervasive anti-Arab bias -- and behind the scenes was remaking himself into a self-styled authority on terrorism. The following month the Tribune would uncork Fechter's sprawling series about Al-Arian and the alleged ties between him, his USF think tank and terrorists. The story would keep Fechter busy for the next six years, as he churned out nearly 70 stories on the topic.

But first, as a sort of dry run, Fechter wrote about the Oklahoma City bombing case. Taking the cue from his terrorist mentor Emerson, who made the same bogus claim on national television, Fechter pointed an accusatory finger at Muslims. Looking back, the glaring mistake should have raised a red flag among Tribune editors about their new in-house terrorist expert.

Thirty-seven days after the Oklahoma City miscue, Fechter's exposé landed on Page 1 of Sunday's May 28, 1995, paper. Picking up where Emerson had left off with his inflammatory 1994 documentary "Jihad in America," which argued angry Muslims at home pose a larger danger to this country than Muslim terrorists abroad, Fechter breathlessly reported that Al-Arian had raised money for Islamic groups that had killed hundreds of people around the world. In addition, Fechter wrote that World Islamic Studies Enterprises, or WISE, the USF think tank Al-Arian helped create, had associated with, and even invited to the campus, known terrorists.

As would become Fechter's custom for years to come, the evidence presented was mostly circumstantial, with guilt by association being his weapon of choice.

That was the conclusion other area journalists came to over time, with the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald both agreeing the Tribune's charges against Al-Arian were weak and revolved around questionable journalism.

John Sugg, writing in the Tampa alternative newspaper The Weekly Planet, was the most scathing, concluding, "The Tribune has woven together unproven assertions, articles from highly suspect publications and out-of-context statements."

Those types of notices probably kept the story from being picked up nationally at the time. Locally, however, the Tribune series had an enormous impact, particularly on Al-Arian's life. Spurred on by the paper's provocative charges, local law enforcement agencies launched investigations, raided the WISE office as well as Al-Arian's home and arrested his brother-in-law for deportation.

How do we know government investigators were following the Tribune's lead and not the other way around? Weeks after the first of the paper's Al-Arian stories ran, the professor's citizenship application was derailed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (Al-Arian has lived in America for a quarter of a century.) Al-Arian filed a Freedom of Information request to see what secret evidence was being used to justify the delay. Two years later the INS's evidence was revealed: Tampa Tribune newspaper clippings.

Over the years the Tribune has supported Fechter, creating a separate Web page so readers could view his entire series, and often cheerleading his work from the editorial page.

And both the Tribune and Fechter enjoy staunch defenders in the community. "I felt the reporting of Tribune warranted a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting," says Norman Gross, leader of a Tampa area Jewish media-watch group.

Gross says he recently met with Tribune editors on Dec. 19 and discussed the paper's coverage. The next day the paper ran an editorial entitled "USF Gets Rid of a Hatemonger," fervently supporting USF's decision to fire the professor. That was odd, since two months earlier a Tribune editorial, while denouncing Al-Arian's actions, suggested any talk of firing him was "ridiculous." After all, asked the Tribune, "Do we want a university where there is no free expression of ideas?" Apparently, after Dec. 19, the paper's answer is yes. (Joe Guidry, who wrote the contradictory editorials, did not return calls seeking comment.)

The seeds of Al-Arian's firing were planted in Fechter's May 28, 1995, article. Some of the evidence Fechter cited in order to substantiate his claim that Al-Arian had ties to terrorists consisted of "rhetoric presented in the conferences" organized by the USF professor. Fechter also noted that Sudanese leader Hassan Turabi, whom he characterized as "the leader of a terrorist state," had visited the USF campus under Al-Arian's watch. Later, Fechter wrote ominously that Al-Arian had "lured" Turabi to USF.

Unfortunately for Fechter's alarmist thesis, on that same trip Turabi also met with Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and the editorial board of the Washington Post, and he spoke at both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution.

Al-Arian had also founded a Palestinian advocacy group called Islamic Committee for Palestine, or ICP. In his original May 28 article, Fechter, trying to tie Al-Arian to terrorism, quoted fiery articles from an ICP publication supporting the intifada and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing -- though Fechter acknowledged that the magazine "included a disclaimer that views expressed were not necessarily the ICP's."

From Day 1, Al-Arian, while never shying away from his militant support for the Palestinian cause, has denied supporting terrorism or terrorist activities. "I have never raised a cent for Islamic Jihad," he said. He has acknowledged that ICP helped raise funds -- $20,000 or $30,000 a year -- for Palestinian charity organizations, and suggested in a letter to a friend that anyone looking to help Palestinians should send money to Hamas, the radical Islamic resistance group. Hamas, whose members have staged numerous terrorist attacks against Israel, has a political wing that distributes money to Palestinian widows and orphans of men killed in the conflict with Israel. It can certainly be argued that money raised for Hamas, regardless of its intentions, could end up supporting its terrorist activities. But it was only in 1996, after anti-terrorism legislation was passed, that it became a crime to send money to foreign groups classified by the State Department as terrorist organizations, such as Hamas.

In fact, what Fechter uncovered, and the rest of the media piled onto, was not a dangerous terrorist but a fairly mainstream -- that is, pro-intifada -- Palestinian, who in his hot-headed youth made regrettably inflammatory comments about Israel, but who has never been tied to any terrorist groups. What's noteworthy here is how eagerly the post-9-11 media conflated the Palestinian cause with bin Ladin and al-Qaida, when in fact there is little actual connection, beyond a shared anger at Israel, between the two.

In a July, 10, 1997, article, Fechter tried mightily to prove a local Muslim travel agent was somehow involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing because one year before the blast he booked a flight for one of the suspects. Fechter wrote that the travel agent "advocated violence abroad against the enemies of Islam."

A correction in the next day's Tribune conceded that accusation was false.

In October of 1995 the Al-Arian story took on added urgency when Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the former head of WISE who had returned to the Middle East months earlier, suddenly emerged as the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a radical group that has engaged in many acts of terrorism against Israelis. The USF community expressed shock at the turn of events, and to this day there's been no proof that anyone in Tampa knew of Shallah's connections, if any, to the organization when he was at USF, or any proof that he was involved in terrorist activities at that time or subsequently.

That didn't deter Fechter, who on Aug. 7, 1997, reported matter-of-factly that "Shallah now says he served as the terrorist group's second in command" while working in Tampa. The Tribune subsequently retracted that assertion.

At one point Fechter quoted an obscure Jordanian newspaper, al Urdun, that suggested that even if Shallah hadn't been tapped to run Islamic Jihad, another WISE researcher, Basheer Nafi, was next in line. Al Urdun later retracted the story, but Fechter continued to make the assertion in print.

Why? Fechter today insists, "If the article was untrustworthy, the retraction was, too."

While Fechter had no qualms about quoting from obscure Middle Eastern papers to support his charges, he was less willing to cite experts. Fechter has never quoted this November 1995 passage from Israeli journalist Ze'ev Schiff, generally acknowledged to be the nation's leading commentator on military affairs, who informed readers that Shallah "does not have a previous experience in terrorist actions. His background is predominantly political. ... Nor is he considered a religious fundamentalist."

The saga took its second major turn when Al-Arian's WISE colleague and brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, was arrested for deportation. Although he had clearly overstayed his student visa, Al-Najjar appealed. Rather than release him on bond, the government submitted secret evidence to the court, insisting that Al-Najjar had terrorist ties. A judge ordered Al-Najjar held without bond.

In a move that turned traditional journalism ethics on its head, Fechter, who had already been criticized by area Muslims for being biased in his reporting, was allowed to write a Sunday commentary for the Tribune, where he derided the "public sympathy campaign" being waged on Al-Najjar's behalf.

For more than three years Al-Najjar sat in jail without knowing what the evidence against him was. Finally, in 2000, a federal judge ruled the use of secret evidence had violated Al-Najjar's constitutional rights and ordered a new bond hearing. After sifting through all the government evidence that, like the Tribune reporting, tried to tie WISE and its associates to terrorist activities, Judge R. Kevin McHugh, a former military judge, ordered Al-Najjar set free.

In his decision, McHugh set aside space to address the activity at USF: "Although there were allegations that ICP and WISE were 'fronts' for Palestinian political causes, there is no evidence before the Court that demonstrates that either organization was a front for the [Islamic Jihad]. To the contrary, there is evidence in the record to support the conclusion that WISE was a reputable and scholarly research center and the ICP was highly regarded."

To this day, the judge's passage, which knocked down the entire premise of Fechter's crusade, has never been quoted in full by any Tampa Tribune reporter. Readers only saw the whole quote when Al-Arian himself penned an Op-Ed for the paper, one year after the ruling was issued.

That court decision, combined with an independent investigation launched by USF whose final 200-page report also found no proof of terrorist ties to WISE or USF, seemed to signal the logical conclusion of the Al-Arian saga. But the irrepressible Fechter returned last June with another in his series of "Tampa's a hotbed for Islamic radical" stories. "Tampa Links Cited in Bombing Trial," was the headline to the 1,800-word, Page 1 Tribune story.

Fechter reported that the name of Tariq Hamdi had come up during the trial of four men convicted of conspiring to destroy U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, where 224 people were killed in 1998. That's because Hamdi, now a journalist, had been hired as a consultant by ABC News to help secure an interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998. Prosecutors contended Hamdi delivered to bin Laden's network a replacement battery for a satellite telephone. Hamdi was never charged with any wrongdoing.

What were the "Tampa links" that led the Tribune to play the story on Page 1? It turns out that Hamdi, a former grad student who left USF a decade ago, once served as ICP's office manager.

This past December, Fechter wrote another excited, Page 1 story about a document found in Al-Arian's home that detailed a "vast covert intelligence and training operation spread throughout the United States."

After reading all 1,400 words, readers learned the document was A) written 20 years ago by B) an unknown person C) seized by investigators in 1996 who D) confronted Al-Arian with it one year earlier and then took no action.

By then, the Al-Arian story, thanks to the post-Sept. 11 interest in all things terror-related, as well as the professor's ill-fated appearance on the "The O'Reilly Factor," was big news again. But what the Tribune has never told its readers is the role Fechter played in helping O'Reilly's producers prepare for the show. He provided them with translations of a solicitation letter Al-Arian wrote seven years ago, as well as a composite videotape of meetings from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Tribune editor-in-chief Gil Thelen defends the information sharing, calling it nothing more than a "professional courtesy," and denies the paper needed to inform readers of Fechter's role as he covered the aftermath of Al-Arian's TV appearance, including the death threats, his paid leave and then his firing.

But Dean Mills, dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, disagrees, saying, "If a reporter or newspaper played some role in another medium's program which became a news event, then they have an obligation to include that fact in their coverage."

When prepping O'Reilly's producers, Fechter never mentioned Judge McHugh's definitive ruling, which completely exonerated Al-Arian and WISE. "I felt confident that Dr. Al-Arian would be capable of pointing out the judge's writings on his own," wrote Fechter in an e-mail response to Salon. "My interest is in getting answers to questions [Al-Arian] does not want to face and that other reporters choose not to ask."

Incredibly -- or maybe not so incredibly -- O'Reilly's producers apparently never bothered to look into the legal disposition of Al-Arian's case. John Sugg, now senior editor of Atlanta's Creative Loafing newspaper, recently talked to Fox producers when they contacted him about appearing on the show for a follow-up segment about Al-Arian. "They said they did not know there was exculpatory information or that a judge had examined this stuff," says Sugg. "They felt like O'Reilly got blindsided."

So much for the no-spin zone.

For weeks, O'Reilly played up the Al-Arian interview, returning to the topic 14 different times. Despite assuring viewers "we researched it pretty thoroughly," he routinely bungled the facts.

For instance, during his original interview O'Reilly insisted former Tampa resident Tariq Hamdi was "on the [FBI] list of suspected terrorists," which is simply not true. On subsequent telecasts O'Reilly insisted that "to this day," Al-Arian "has contacts with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad" and remains "very tight" with the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Those are allegations not even Fechter or Emerson have dared to make.

Neither O'Reilly nor his producers returned calls for comment.

By the time USF fired Al-Arian, O'Reilly was trying to wash his hands of the situation: "I'm getting blamed for this guy losing his job. I don't want that blame on me," he told viewers.

O'Reilly's belated profession of blamelessness is ludicrous, but there's plenty of media blame to go around.

Tampa Tribune columnist Daniel Ruth helped by painting a picture of an unrepentant professor still spouting hate when he recently wrote that Al-Arian made highly inflammatory, anti-Israel comments at a rally in 1998. Ruth was off by a decade: Al-Arian made the remarks, which he now says he regrets having made, as a 30-year-old in 1988, the year the intifada began. The Tribune has yet to correct that error.

Certainly the veteran terrorism expert and NBC news consultant, Steve Emerson would take credit, not blame, for Al-Arian's firing. Despite the fact no charges have ever been brought against the USF professor (on the contrary; he's met personally with both Presidents Clinton and Bush in recent years), Emerson has been branding Al-Arian a terrorist for close to a decade. During a 1996 speaking engagement in St. Petersburg, Emerson, citing anonymous sources, assured the audience that Palestinian radicals at USF were involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Testifying before Congress that same year, Emerson said that materials seized at Al-Arian's home constituted "one of the largest acquisitions of raw terrorist material ever found in the United States."

And during a 1997 speech Emerson laid it on thick, insisting, "From the safety of [his] Tampa office, Mr. Al-Arian operated a terrorist organization, raising funds, recruiting terrorists and bringing them into the country, devising terrorist strategies, and actually directing specific terrorist attacks." Again, Emerson's unspecified sources made it impossible to verify these sensational charges. Of course, if Emerson had real evidence to support them, Al-Arian wouldn't be sweating an appearance on the "The O'Reilly Factor" today; he'd be doing hard time.

Despite that string of hollow indictments, producers at NBC's news magazine "Dateline" didn't hesitate to usher Emerson on the air last October for a segment to -- what else? -- accuse Al-Arian of aiding terrorists.

In her introduction, NBC's Jane Pauley recklessly stressed a connection between Al-Arian and Sept. 11: "We're told that it's probable, if not certain, that there are still terrorists among us. Now investigators say there is evidence that an organization with ties to Middle East terrorists may have been operating in Florida for as long as a decade."

The "investigators" turned out to be ... Steve Emerson. In fact, NBC never interviewed a single law enforcement official for its Oct. 28 report. The "Dateline" piece consisted entirely of Emerson, who was given a prime-time platform to air his creative accusations. (Al-Arian refused to appear on the show.)

Emerson told "Dateline" reporter Bob McKeown that Islamic Jihad "had essentially relocated to the United States in the city of Tampa," where it was operating as "a shadow government" for the terrorist group.

Emphasis on shadow, since neither the FBI, the INS, the CIA, USF nor the Tampa police were ever able to uncover it. Only Emerson.

Of course, Emerson never mentioned that Judge McHugh had looked at these allegations in 2000 and found no wrongdoing. It's not clear whether McKeown even knew about the judge's ruling.

Neither "Dateline" producers nor McKeown would comment about the segment. Hussein Ibish, communications director at the American Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, says he called McKeown twice after the piece aired, but never heard back. "If I'd been responsible for such a shoddy piece of journalism I wouldn't want to be held accountable," says Ibish. "It was indefensible."

Another key media player in this drama has been the St. Petersburg Times, the Tribune's competitor across the Bay. Interestingly, the Times, which for years had offered a long-running counterbalance to the Tribune's sinister take on Al-Arian, may have precipitated Al-Arian's firing when the paper seemed to turn on him after Sept. 11.

"I've gotten the distinct impression that something has happened at the St. Pete Times. Their coverage [on Al-Arian] has just deteriorated," says Joe Mahon, a former Middle Eastern oil executive who has met with local editors in recent years on behalf of Muslims in the Tampa community.

That shift most likely stemmed from the fact that the Times' Susan Aschoff, who worked the story for years, was taken off the beat on Sept. 28, just as Al-Arian's appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" was exploding into a big national story.

Aschoff wouldn't discuss the move. But according to Mahon, who spoke with the reporter last fall, she was told the move stemmed from her "incompetence." Yet 10 months earlier Aschoff's editors had nominated her work for a Pulitzer Prize. (She's still with the paper, covering medical news.)

"She was clearly upset and did not know what was going on," says Mahon. "It puzzles me and I wonder if the paper was responding to pressure."

Norman Gross, who runs the local Jewish media-watch group, and who had complained about Aschoff's work in the past, was glad to see her go. "I just felt she'd become so taken with Al-Arian that she could no longer write a story without putting in a phrase or twist sympathetic to the cause."

Neither Times editor and president Paul Tash nor managing editor Neil Brown returned calls to discuss the newspaper's coverage.

The paper's Nov. 1 editorial, "Behind Al-Arian's Facade," added to the perception that after Sept. 11, St. Petersburg Times executives may have felt, at least from a P.R. standpoint, they were on the wrong side of an emotionally charged issue involving Middle Eastern terrorism.

Taking its lead from NBC's "Dateline" broadcast, the paper lashed out at the USF professor for "playing his American hosts for fools for years," and "spewing the most hateful sort of venom in the company of fellow Islamic extremists." (The paper's editorial board still maintains that Al-Arian was unjustly fired.)

Robert Friedman, who wrote the unsigned editorial, says it was based on new information aired by NBC. But Robin Blumner, a member of the paper's editorial board, insists "Dateline" simply aired allegations already familiar to local readers. "It was all old news," says Blumner, who lobbied unsuccessfully to have the wording of the Al-Arian editorial toned down. (The fact is, one year earlier the Tribune had written about the information Emerson used for his "Dateline" segment.)

The final media players in the Al-Arian debacle were the local Tampa talk radio jocks, who vilified Al-Arian for months. "The Clear Channel stations, especially 970 AM [WFLA] led the charge against Al-Arian," reports Bob Lorei, news director at Tampa's WMNF. Clear Channel is the largest owner of radio stations in America, with approximately 1,200 outlets nationwide, and eight in Tampa.

WFLA host Tedd Webb highlighted his ignorance of the case when he stated publicly that ABC turned to "a professor from USF" to secure a bin Laden interview. (Webb was presumably referring to Hamdi, who is not "a professor from USF.") He has also echoed Emerson's claim that "the terrorist cell operating at the University of South Florida was the largest ... in the world."

Than why no arrests? Webb had a conspiracy theory to explain that: "In an effort to bring peace in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians," the FBI never made a move on Al-Arian.

But Webb was the soul of journalistic probity compared to his R-rated Clear Channel colleague Todd Clem, better known as Bubba the Love Sponge. Even before Al-Arian appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor," Bubba was falsely telling Tampa listeners that Muslim students at USF had been seen celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks. University spokesman Michael Reich says the school called the station and spoke to representatives in the newsroom who conceded they knew the accusations were not true but that they had nothing to do with Bubba's program. The University's general counsel office then contacted Clear Channel's station manager, but to no avail. Bubba continued making the bogus claim, even insisting he had a videotape to prove it. He never did produce a tape. WXTB program director Brad Hardin did not return calls seeking comment.

(Even as the horrific events of Sept. 11 were unfolding, Bubba and his morning crew on WXTB managed to find moments of humor. Watching live TV shots of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames, Bubba suggested they crank call and tell workers there, "In case you guys don't know it, the building's on fire!" One sidekick joked, "You won't be able to go to Windows on the World for lunch today!")

One week after the terrorist attacks Bubba called a local doctor's office on the air and accused him of making anti-American comments. Three hundred angry Bubba listeners deluged the doctor with calls that morning, and his office was forced to close early. Unfortunately, the shock jock had the wrong man.

Then, after Bubba spent one October morning insulting Al-Arian on the air, the professor was hit with a wave of hate e-mails.

One would not think that Bubba the Love Sponge's role in fomenting a campaign of ignorant, hate-filled e-mails against a tenured professor would be something that University of South Florida administrators would highlight. But Jack Wheat, USF's special assistant to the president, recently answered an e-mail from a Salon reader who complained about the school's decision to fire Al-Arian with the following remarkable communication:

"Thank you for your message. Unfortunately, a good number of Americans do believe that he is speaking for the University. We have received hundreds of communications indicating that from people whose mastery of syntax and argumentation suggest that they are quite intelligent. More troubling have been the barrage of computer viruses sent by people who are intelligent but warped. But most troubling have been the death threats, often stimulated by local media personalities such as Bubba the Love Sponge, that have breached the safety of the learning environment. Dr. Al-Arian has violated the professional obligations that are clearly delineated in the contract negotiated by the faculty union and the State University System of Florida."

Wheat could not be reached for comment.

Al-Arian's battle to get his job back at USF will likely end up in the courts. Perhaps while his attorneys examine the university's egregious behavior, they should train their attention on some of America's biggest media players as well.

This story has been corrected.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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