WASHINGTON - The White House's list of 78 terrorist incidents it claims have been under covered by the media was hastily assembled to defend President Trump's latest broadside on the "dishonest press" and doesn't show what the administration says it does.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that the list demonstrated "the reason the president is acting in so many of the ways he has, with executive order and otherwise" — connecting the president's claims to the legal battle over his order banning people from seven predominately Muslim countries from traveling to the United States. "And I think what we need to do is to remind people that the Earth is a very dangerous place these days," he said.
A USA TODAY analysis of the incidents in the White House list published Monday night found that it has little bearing on the fight over the travel ban.
- Most of the incidents were perpetrated by home-grown terrorists, with only 11 involving a demonstrated connection to the seven banned nations.
- Only 10 of the incidents happened on U.S. soil.
- While some of the incidents involved dozens of deaths, 38 had no fatalities.
- Three of the incidents aren't even properly classified as terrorist incidents, according to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. They include an attack by a French national who killed his British backpacking companion in Australia after she rejected his advances.
The list was compiled after the president made his false claim that news organizations ignored or downplayed terrorist attacks tied to Muslims. But the White House's list included well-chronicled, large-scale attacks — including shootings and bombings in San Bernardino, Calif., Orlando, Brussels and Paris.
And the list contained several errors, including the date of a 2015 attack in Bosnia-Herzegovina. That attack, which killed two soldiers, was perpetrated by a French national who was said to have fundamentalist views, although no terror group claimed responsibility.
Nevertheless, the White House claimed the events have not received "the spectacular attention they deserve."
Trying to 'flood the zone'
The debate over terrorism coverage is the latest example of White House staffers left to justify Trump's unfounded assertions after the fact. Trump has previously made widely disputed claims about the crowd size at his inaugural, widespread voter fraud and cyber attacks on the Democratic National Committee.
In releasing the list of terror incidents, White House officials said Trump was arguing that terrorist attacks have become so pervasive that they do not spark the intensity of coverage they once did. That criticism echoes complaints in some conservative web sites that the mainstream media are engaged in a campaign of misinformation to play down what they call the "jihadist" nature of some of the attacks committed by "Islamists."
InfoWars, a conspiracy-minded web site with a radio show that has interviewed Trump, is one outlet pushing this line. Sample recent headline: "FAKE NEWS: MAINSTREAM MEDIA WHITEWASHES ISLAMIC TERROR IN BERLIN: Propagandists desperate to hide the obvious."
"The terror list was both an attempt to flood the zone and move the goalposts," said Nicole Renee Hemmer, assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. "It was an absurd list, mixing non-terror events with very small events with huge, arguably over-covered events like the Sydney cafe attack."
That incident, in which a lone gunman took hostages in a 16-hour standoff in Australia, was initially categorized as a terror attack but later attributed by prosecutors to "a complex, disturbed individual desperate for recognition."
Hemmer said it's succeeded in changing the subject: "It's so muddied the waters that few people are talking about the actual claim Trump made, that news media are essentially colluding with terrorists by not covering attacks," he said.
And it's the second time in a month that Trump has attacked the media in a speech to a national security audience. He also bemoaned the "dishonest" media during a meeting at the CIA the day after his swearing-in, including his claims about crowd size at the inaugural.
The latest controversy began at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Monday, when Trump addressed the military command at the forefront of the war on terror. "You've seen what happened in Paris and Nice. All over Europe it's happening. It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that," he said.
Asked to explain those remarks Tuesday, Trump turned the subject to the coverage of him.
"I happen to know, because I'm reported on possibly more than anybody in the world. I don't think you'll say anything about that," he said. "I understand the total dishonesty of the media better than anybody and I let people know it. I mean, the media is a very, very dishonest arm and we'll see what happens."
The White House list sent several news organizations checking their archives for quick audits of their news coverage. USA TODAY found more than 200 stories about the incidents. The attacks that went unreported involved two or fewer deaths.
After checking its archives, NBC News said it covered 57 of the 78 attacks on the Trump list, incidents that resulted in the deaths of 745 people. "By contrast," the network reported, "the 21 attacks NBC News did not cover were smaller incidents in places like Egypt, Bosnia or Bangladesh, resulting in the deaths of just eight people, total."