Fox Amplifies Discredited Anti-Islamic Activist Steve Emerson During Boston Coverage

Fox News hosted anti-Islam activist Steve Emerson to repeat the disputed claim that a Saudi student he named as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings is slated for deportation, one of several claims that Emerson got wrong about the bombings this week.

Emerson, who styles himself as some kind of expert on terrorism and Islamic extremism especially, has a tenuous history with the facts. Indeed, his analysis of Boston is reminiscent of his blunders about the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 -- when his certainty that Islamic terrorists were behind the incident was exposed as false.

On April 16, C-SPAN hosted Emerson to discuss the Boston bombings. As Salon reported, Emerson cited “classified information” when he fingered a “Saudi national” as a possible suspect because, he stated, “the burns on his skin match the explosive residue of the bomb that exploded.”

A few hours later on Fox News, Emerson recanted, saying: “We're back to square one in terms of suspects because the Saudi suspect has been ruled out.” Indeed, the Saudi student has been cleared of suspicion and according to law enforcement was never in custody.

But on Fox, Emerson continued to tie the bombings to “jihadists,” claiming that the “actual fragment, which were nails and ball-bearings” used in Boston are “a hallmark, by the way, of jihadist suicide bombings.” As The Daily Beast pointed out in response to Emerson's incorrect musings:

[T]he Boston Marathon bombs don't appear to have been suicide bombings at all, but just as he did in Oklahoma City, Emerson is attributing widely used modi operandi and ascribing it to Muslim terrorists. Just as Tim McVeigh and Anders Breivik might have been surprised to learn that only Middle Easterners seek to “inflict as many casualties as possible,” so too would Ted Kaczynski (an anti-technology zealot known as the Unabomber) and David Copeland (a British neo-Nazi known as the Nailbomber) be surprised to learn that putting nails in bombs as shrapnel qualifies them as “jihadists.” And actual terrorism expert Will McCants Tweeted a 2011 case where white supremacists had used ball bearings in a bomb.

Indeed, it is now being reported that two brothers who may be from Russia's Caucasus region are believed to be responsible for the Boston bombings.

Despite it all, Fox News continued to host Emerson. On April 17, he appeared on Sean Hannity's show to invent the conspiracy theory that the Saudi student he had named a suspect was going to be deported “on national security grounds.”, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' website, latched onto Emerson's report to claim this offered proof of an “attempt” by the administration “to cover up a possible Saudi connection to the Boston attack.”

Even though this also turned out to be false, the next day, Hannity hosted Emerson again to repeat the deportation myth. But as The Hill reported:

Administration officials told The Hill on Thursday that news reports about the student injured in the bombing are confusing him with another student from Saudi Arabia who was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for violating his visa.


“These rumors are wrong,” a White House official said. “This is a totally different individual who is not the individual that was questioned in connection with Boston. And this individual is in custody for reasons unrelated to Boston.”

What is revealing about all of this is the fact that the media treated Emerson as a credible expert despite his checkered history on terrorism issues. Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) noted that immediately following the Oklahoma City bombing, Emerson claimed on CBS that the bombing had “a Middle Eastern trait” because it “was done with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible.” Emerson went even further, saying that Oklahoma City area is area is “one of the centers for Islamic radicalism outside the Middle East.”

In a 1999 report titled “Steve Emerson's Crusade,” FAIR stated that Emerson's “priority is not so much news as it is an unrelenting attack against Arabs and Muslims,” and he has a history of “pushing questionable stories.”

According to FAIR, when asked about how Emerson is perceived by fellow journalists, investigative author Seymour Hersh replied: “He's poison.”

The Chicago chapter of the Council On American-Islamic Relations has accused Emerson of being a “liar” and his Investigative Project, which claims to be a “counter-terrorism investigative project,” of being “little more than an anti-Muslim propaganda mouth-piece.”

While other news outlets have shied away from relying on his so-called expertise, Fox News and other right-wing media outlets have been enthusiastic promoters of his anti-Islam rantings:

  • Emerson claimed President Obama “is not necessarily a Muslim,” adding, “I don't believe that” but he is “pro-Islamist.”
  • Emerson suggested that some level of Islamophobia is justified because “65 to 70 percent of all international terrorist attacks are carried out by radical Muslims, so there's a fear based on that.”
  • Emerson claimed Palestinian militants are in Mexico learning “how to dig tunnels that will evade detection in Gaza.”
  • Emerson's Investigative Project smeared a Muslim advocate for urging American Muslims to have an attorney present when speaking to law enforcement.
  • Emerson joined other right-wing media figures in calling for more racial profiling of Muslims.