Media endangers entire neighborhood to pursue thoughtcrime suspect

When Princess Diana was killed in a car crash after a high-speed race through the streets of Paris with paparazzi, her family understandably claimed that the media had killed the mother of the future King of the UK.  At the time, I considered that a little hyperbolic, although hardly unwarranted hyperbole, as the actual proximate causes of death were a driver under the influence making a rash decision to outrun photographers and a decision not to use seatbelts. But over the last couple of days, I wonder whether the American media may get someone killed — and perhaps more than a few people — with their irresponsible stakeout of “Sam Bacile.”

First, let me introduce you to my hometown of Cerritos, California.  My family moved there in 1970, just a few years past its unincorporated status of Dairy Valley.  At the time, we had a few operating dairies within the city, as well as at least one small horse facility, along with new retail and residential building.  I graduated from Cerritos High in 1980, five years after the facility had opened, and we still had a dairy or two operating, although they were on their way out.  The incongruous exurban outpost in the Los Angeles metro area soon transformed into a pricy center for retail and the arts.

Not too many famous people came from my little corner of the world.  Our biggest celebrity is probably Lela Rochon, who graduated a couple of years after me.  Lela started her career as a Spuds MacKenzie girl and went on to star in movies such as Waiting to Exhale, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, Any Given Sunday, and an especially delightful role in Harlem Nights with Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy.  I didn’t know Lela in high school, but I did know Lee Marvin’s biographer, Dwayne Epstein, who also went to Cerritos High and whose book Point Blank will come out early next year.  Mike Allen of Politico also hails from Cerritos, and then you have Yours Truly, which shows how little star power the old hometown really has.

In fact, the most notoriety our town ever had was for a horrible tragedy, the Aero Mexico plane crash of 1986.  I had moved out of Cerritos by that time, but by chance happened to be at our then-family home when the crash occurred.  It killed 67 people in the air and another 15 on the ground, in a neighborhood that looked as though it had been bombed.

Why bring that up?  It was the first thing that came to mind when I saw this report from local TV station KTLA in the media’s pursuit of “Sam Bacile,” the man behind the YouTube video that provided an excuse for rioting in a number of countries:

Take a look at just the first minute or so of this report.  Look at all of the media trucks in this sleepy little neighborhood, and not just KTLA’s.  If anyone interested in taking revenge on Nakoula Besseley Nakoula wanted to know where to find him, it wouldn’t take long in this small city, especially with some media reports noting Nakoula’s distinctive front door.  And while some people wouldn’t care about Nakoula’s fate, the kind of people looking to take revenge on him aren’t really known for their precision attacks and avoidance of collateral damage.  This media swarm puts that entire neighborhood at risk, now and probably for a very long time.

And for what?  Is Nakoula a serial killer? A child molester?  No, he’s a man with poor taste who made a video that insulted some people who can’t deal with criticism, even the laughably inane and inept criticism of this 14-minute cheesefest that makes Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Citizen Kane.  However, in the US, making really bad movies and engaging in even inept theological and historical commentary isn’t a crime at all.  The media are undermining the same guarantees of free speech that allow them to operate without government interference, and they’re putting people’s lives at risk while doing so.  They’re not going to be happy until there’s another crater in Cerritos.

Meanwhile, while the media provides moment-to-moment coverage of Thoughtcrime Enemy #1 this week, the feds are interrogating him as to whether his filmmaking might violate his probation on unrelated matters:

A man purported to be a filmmaker involved with the anti-Islam video sparking violent unrest in the Middle East and North Africa was escorted by deputies from his Cerritos, Calif., home shortly after midnight Saturday morning, reported.

Media and law enforcement had been staking out the home at the end of a cul de sac in the Southern California city for about 48 hours when Nakoula Besseley Nakoula emerged wearing a coat, hat, scarf and glasses.

L.A. County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore confirmed to NBCLA that Nakoula, 55, was taken to the Cerritos sheriff’s station for interviewing by federal probation officers aimed at determining whether he violated the terms of his 5-year probation by uploading a video to the Internet.

“We are in an assist mode,” he said.

Nakoula is no saint, as the report makes clear:

A federal grand jury indictment in February 2009 charged Nakoula in an alleged bank fraud conspiracy. The indictment accused him and others of fraudulently obtaining the identities and Social Security numbers of bank customers at Wells Fargo and withdrawing $860 from bank branches in Cerritos, Artesia and Norwalk.

Nakoula pleaded no contest in 2010 and was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution. He was also sentenced to 21 months in federal prison, but was released early. The terms of his parole included being barred from assuming aliases and using computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer. …

Los Angeles County District Attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons confirmed that Nakoula also served a year in jail after pleading guilty to possession of meth with the intent to manufacture in 1997.

Here’s the question: would any of these people care about Nakoula’s probation status had the video not purportedly caused riots?  If so, isn’t this pursuit more about the kind of speech in which Nakoula engaged than in what kind of activity he may have conducted with computers and the Internet? This is dangerous ground for free speech, and the media is making Cerritos into dangerous ground in a much more literal sense.

Update: Commenters rightly argue with an assumption I didn’t mean to make in my last paragraph. I don’t think a six-month old video “caused” the riots, either. It was just a pretext. I’ve added “purportedly” to make clear I’m arguing the current claim rather than the reality.