Why the media failed us after the Colleyville synagogue attack

This is why we feel gaslighted by the FBI and the media. We Jews can’t even be the heroes (or victims) in our own tragedies.
The Associated Press' initial coverage of the Colleyville attack citing the FBI's claims that the Jewish community wasn't targeted. (Photo: Screengrab)

“The Texas synagogue hostage taker’s demands were specifically focused on issues not connected to the Jewish community,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno said Saturday night after the nearly 11-hour hostage siege at Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, ended.

That narrative was quickly picked up by the national press with the AP blasting out the headline: 

The Associated Press’ initial coverage of the Colleyville attack citing the FBI’s claims that the Jewish community wasn’t targeted. (Photo: Screengrab)

That headline was soon pushed out to hundreds of news outlets across the United States and the world.​ Saturday’s news coverage exposed multiple failures by the national and international media. At worst what happened was journalistic malpractice. At best it was inexperienced weekend staffers committing multiple mistakes that went unchecked.

Let’s start with the basics: A gunman entering a synagogue demanding the release of someone imprisoned by the U.S. government nicknamed “Lady Al Qaeda” is in itself an antisemtic act. As Jews we know this, but in order to communicate this to the non-Jewish world, we need to spell out why this act is antisemitic. 

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition (IHRA), created in 2016, in part defines antisemitism as:

“Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion [is antisemitism].”

The gunman specifically targeted a synagogue during services and took Jews hostage as leverage for his radical demands— that is by definition an antisemitic act. If that wasn’t clear enough, a simple Google search would have turned up multiple anti-Jewish angles to this story.

The gunman demanded the release of Pakistani national Aafia Siddiqui who is sitting in a Texas prison for attempting to kill U.S. service members in Afghanistan. The gunman walked into the closest Jewish house of worship that’s near the prison Siddiqui, a convicted terrorist, is serving time in. 

If you do that quick search on Siddiqui, you’ll find that she has numerous anti-Jewish leanings. So numerous in fact there’s an entire section on her Wikipedia page dedicated to her antisemitic beliefs. 

“She said the case against her was a Jewish conspiracy, demanded that no Jews be allowed on the jury, and that all prospective jurors be DNA-tested and excluded from the jury at her trial “if they have a Zionist or Israeli background.” She stated: “They are all mad at me … I have a feeling everyone here is them – subject to genetic testing. They should be excluded, if you want to be fair.”

You did not need to go far down the rabbit hole to connect the dots here and yet nobody in the mainstream media did.

A law enforcement vehicle sits in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on January 16, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. All four people who were held hostage at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue have been safely released after more than 10 hours of being held captive by a gunman. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

In the absence of logic it is the media’s job to tell the full story. That is our one morale and sacred obligation. Here the media failed us at every level. This is why we as Jews feel entirely gaslighted by the FBI and the media. The media took a baffling statement made by the FBI at face value and moved on.

How?

Why?

As more details emerged, it became increasingly clear that the gunman not only wanted to make a statement with the Jews he was holding hostage — he also wanted to cause them great harm. But again, this wasn’t viewed as antisemitism and the lopsided reporting continued into the next day. 

The suspect benevolently released the hostages: “Texas synagogue standoff ends with hostages freed, suspect dead,” a Washington Post headline declared.

Reuters reported: “People being held hostage at a Colleyville, Tex., synagogue were freed and unharmed on Jan. 15. Authorities said the suspect died.”

The New York Times said the FBI freed the suspects despite no statement issued by authorities confirming this.

No.

The rabbi threw a chair at the gunman and they escaped.

We Jews can’t even be the heroes (or victims) in our own tragedies.

Further frustrating all of us was the fact that from the very start President Joe Biden seemingly contradicted the FBI’s conclusions that being Jewish had nothing to do with the attack.

FBI Special Agent In Charge Matthew DeSarno speaks at a news conference near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on January 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. All four people who were held hostage at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue have been safely released after more than 10 hours of being held captive by a gunman. Earlier this morning, police responded to a hostage situation after reports of a man with a gun was holding people captive. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

“There is more we will learn in the days ahead about the motivations of the hostage taker,” Biden said in a statement released Saturday night. “But let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate — we will stand against anti-Semitism and against the rise of extremism in this country. That is who we are, and tonight, the men and women of law enforcement made us all proud.”

At a press conference on Sunday the president doubled down, saying the suspect used antisemitic and anti-Israel comments.

The mainstream media didn’t change its narrative, and instead of quoting the president, they kept the FBI’s claims in headlines.

It’s bewildering to think that nobody picked up on the fact that any of these multiple layers of nuance were in fact an act of antisemitism worth reporting on:

  • A foreign gunman walks into a synagogue during services and takes Jews hostages
  • A gunman holding Jews hostage demands the release of a known antisemite imprisoned by the government
  • The president acknowledges that the gunman made antisemitic and anti-Israel statements and called it a terrorist attack
  • Officials announce that there is an Israel connection and the name of the synagogue is called Congregation Beth Israel

The list goes on:

  • The gunman demanded the rabbi call another rabbi in New York to lobby on his behalf for the release of Siddiqui
  • Officials very early in the investigation said that they were investigating a Tel Aviv angle to the case

The only ones seemingly crying foul to the narrative that being Jewish had nothing to do with the attack was the Jewish and Israeli press.

And yet again the national media didn’t even pay attention to this, going down their own path creating an alternative narrative read by tens if not hundreds of millions.

A reporter checks her notes before giving a live update on January 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. Police responded to the situation after reports of a man with a gun was holding hostages at the synagogue. (Photo by Emil Lippe/Getty Images)

This is why I’m actually shocked. I was the equivalent of the AP wire reporter that night for NBC News for years. I would have done that Google search. I would have included those nuggets. I would have written a headline that contradicted the FBI’s initial conclusion. That’s journalism 101. 

“FBI: No Jewish connection to synagogue hijacking despite anti-Jewish leanings”

My editors would have published that story with no questions asked. Was maleficence afoot? I’m not suggesting that at all. I am, however, suggesting that the media was sloppy, lazy and didn’t do their job. And to me that’s even more sinister than a conspiratorial plot because to me this indicates a wholesale failure of a very necessary and important institution in a functioning democracy.

The FBI finally realized how much they messed up and issued a statement late Sunday: 

“All of us at the FBI are relieved the hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, was resolved without physical injury to those taken hostage. We never lose sight of the threat extremists pose to the Jewish community and to other religious, racial, and ethnic groups. We have had a close and enduring relationship with the Jewish community for many years. We continue to work tirelessly with the Secure Community Network, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Federation, and others to protect members of the Jewish community from all potential threats.”

The FBI concluded saying: “This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted, and is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Preventing acts of terrorism and violence is the number one priority of the FBI.”

The AP issued a clarification on Twitter, burying it in a subtweet.

Then it later came out that the suspect believed that the Jews controlled the world:

“This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world,” Cytron-Walker told The Forward. “He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed.”

It shouldn’t have taken the Jewish people to point out that this attack was antisemitic from the very beginning, but nobody would listen to us.

The media should have questioned the FBI from the start, but they didn’t.

“We are working to get clarification from the FBI on why they believe that an attack on a synagogue had no connection to being Jewish despite the obvious connection,” is what I would have written into my anchor’s teleprompter when I was a network news producer.

The media should have quoted Jewish leaders saying that we were being gaslighted from the very beginning, but they didn’t.

“Jewish leaders question FBI’s conclusion on synagogue attack,” is a headline that should have been published in the immediate aftermath. If this attack happened on my watch when I was a managing editor of a newspaper I know I would have assigned that story out to one of my reporters.

(To be fair not every outlet was as negligent as the AP or BBC. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and others slowly pivoted after it became clear there was outrage over the FBI’s comment, but all their original reporting took the FBI’s statement at face value.)

This was a Jewish story from the moment of the attack and all we asked for from the media was for them to do their job but they couldn’t.

Nobody spoke up at the press conference and asked questions clarifying the bizarre statements made by officials.

Nobody except for the Jewish and Israeli press connected the dots in the early hours after the siege ended.

Instead the media tried to strip away our vulnerability and instill a narrative that wasn’t based in reality, one in which “people” just happened to be “randomly” targeted for no other reason than for just being at the wrong place at the wrong time— and that narrative creates a very dangerous world to be Jewish in.