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By Elaine Silvestrini
The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA - Reporter Michael Fechter, whose investigative pursuit of the Sami Al-Arian story helped make The Tampa Tribune a lightning rod, is leaving the paper to work for the documentary film maker who first linked Al-Arian to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Fechter, who has worked at the Tribune for 17 years, was the first newspaper reporter to expose the University of South Florida professor’s involvement in the terrorist organization that claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings and hundreds of deaths in Israel’s occupied territories.
Fechter said his early reporting on the computer science professor was inspired by Steve Emerson’s 1994 documentary “Jihad in America,” which initially linked Al-Arian to the Islamic Jihad.
Both Fechter and Emerson have drawn fire from critics who accuse them of being anti-Muslim and reckless.
Fechter said he will work on a Web site Emerson is developing that will focus on Islamic extremists and their organizations. “I think what we learned in the Al-Arian saga is that there are people in this country who would prefer we not know exactly who they are and exactly what they’re doing,” Fechter said, “and to me this is a continuation of the journalistic enterprise to disclose that.”
Critic Calls Them Anti-Muslim
Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Fechter’s move “confirms our suspicious all along that Michael Fechter has been acting as an agent for Steven Emerson, unethically acting as an agent for Steven Emerson, and saw Emerson more than just as a source but also as a mentor.”
“Steven Emerson, who has a well-known history of Muslim bashing, would only hire someone he trusts and that relationship of trust would take time to build and develop,” Bedier said. The move “just calls into question all the work that Michael Fechter has done for the Tribune, specifically, on the Sami Al-Arian trial. The Tribune should revisit his work for authenticity to confirm, to verify the information that’s there to make sure he’s not the Judith Miller of Tampa, where he’s not just acting as an impartial unbiased journalist to make sure he wasn’t acting as an agent and an advocate.”
Reporter Asked To Leave Paper
Tribune Executive Editor Janet Coats said she’s comfortable with the work Fechter has done at the paper. “He’s always been a very careful and precise journalist,” she said. “If anything, he’s erred on the side of being conservative in his approach to his reporting.”
Still, when Fechter gave his editors two weeks notice Monday, they asked him to leave by the end of the day. Coats said that’s because while she can strongly defend “every bit of Mike’s coverage,” she doesn’t know enough about Emerson to defend his work against charges of bias.
Emerson said he hired Fechter because he’s “one of the best reporters in the United States” and should have received a Pulitzer Prize for his work in the Al-Arian case. Emerson said his and Fechter’s critics are “apologists for Islamic terrorism … who for too long have gotten away with what I call the grand deception, projecting themselves as the victims of ‘hate crimes’ or the victims of ‘bias’ when, in fact, they’re the perpetrators of hate crimes and the perpetrators of bias and the perpetrators of radical Islam.”
Bedier also cited Fechter’s romantic involvement with Cherie Krigsman, one of the prosecutors in the Al-Arian trial, as evidence that Fechter’s journalism was questionable.
“I haven’t written about Al-Arian since my relationship with her began,” Fechter responded. “I disclosed it upon the next instance and never wrote about it again.
“These are opportunities to deflect attention from the fact that Sami Al-Arian was a board member on the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and lied about to anyone who asked, including his employer, for a decade.”
Al-Arian was indicted in 2003 on charges he was an organizer for the Islamic Jihad and helped run the group’s U.S. fundraising. After a five-month trial, a jury failed to convict him on any charges, but deadlocked on several.
Al-Arian later pleaded guilty to a single count of providing help to the Islamic Jihad, and is now enmeshed in a battle of wills with federal prosecutors in Virginia who are trying to force him to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic charity. Had that case not arisen, his sentence called for his deportation last month. He is serving time in federal prison on a contempt charge.
Reporter Elaine Silvestrini can be reached at (813) 259-7837 or firstname.lastname@example.org.