Tom Lyden of Fox 9 thought he had a scoop but ended up retracting a story about Minnesota House 60B candidate Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American. The story claimed U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger requested United States Custom and Immigration Services(USCIS) to investigate Omar after conservative activists mounted unsubstantiated but sustained accusations of sham marriages designed to defraud the immigration system.
Luger denied his office made such request and characterized the story as “erroneous news report” in a letter to Omar’s attorney. Fox 9 removed the story from the station’s website immediately.
The sequence of events triggered calls from reporters and Omar’s supporters to explain how Lyden got wrong a story about one of the high-profile races in the state. Lyden has routed “all media communication” to station management. Station management has not yet provided an adequate explanation.
In this snafu, Lyden did not make an innocent factual error or a mistake in a minor part of the story. The entire story turned out to be false. It was a complete debacle.
For many in Minnesota’s Somali community, the latest screw-up cements a long-held perspective that Fox 9 protects an overzealous and reckless reporter with a hidden agenda and this episode underscores it.
According to many Somalis I spoke with, Lyden’s agenda is to prove his premonition that Somalis are destined to crime and in collusion with international terrorists. Therefore, should be feared.
Following terror attacks in far-flung parts of the world, Lyden often camps outside one of the Twin Cities mosques asking for comments as though congregants had prior knowledge of the crime. It has become a habit for Lyden.
Lyden reported a number of sensationalized stories broadcasted by the station on prime-time starting in 2007 when news of Somali-American young men leaving the Twin Cities for Somalia begun to trickle in. The young men left to join armed struggle against the invading Ethiopia but some ended up fighting for Al-Shabaab, one of many derivatives.
Lyden’s stories had many inaccuracies and were enhanced with special visual and sound effects found only in TV. In one story, Lyden stood in front of a mosque in Minneapolis, held a copy of the Quran with a camera caption which read “Suicide Bomber Meeting”. Lyden’s tone added additional horror feeling similar to the impending threat in the third chronicle of Game of Thrones.
There was no such suicide bomber meeting in Minneapolis. But there was no doubt the production invoked fear of Somalis.
Lyden’s reports also gave a strong impression that there was a larger conspiracy being orchestrated by local mosques particularly Abubakar As-Sidique in South Minneapolis; and the young men were recruited by its leaders. Fed investigators found [NO] evidence after years of vigorous investigation.
The retraction of the story about Ilhan Omar has Somalis crying with “we told you so Lyden had been over exaggerating and inventing stories”. The only difference here, in their perspective, is that Lyden’s latest invented story crossed powerful man, U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger. No doubt in their mind that Lyden’s other stories about Somalis would have met a similar fate if Somalis had the power to challenge them.
There are other examples of Lyden’s recklessness and propensity for false positives. In 2000, he was charged with “three misdemeanor counts-theft, temporary theft, and motor-vehicle tampering” by Sherburne County Prosecutors while reporting about an illegal dog fight. He later admitted going “too far” and exercising bad judgment.
Station Leaderionship at the time defended Lyden. General manager Stu Swartz attacked a group of journalists who chastised Lyden for poor professionalism instead of disciplining him.
When the station aired Lyden’s sensationalized terrorism stories, community leaders made series of attempts to meet with station management to make very clear that the stories had serious potential consequences. The sense in the community was and still is over dramatizing stories involving terrorism invokes fear and shape attitudes about an entire community. Thus, Lyden's stories and their special effects contribute to hateful attacks endangering lives. Station leadership never responded to those meeting requests.
There is a new leadership at Fox 9 and at least one preliminary meeting with some community leaders has occurred. The latest noisome presents an opportunity to depart from past practices. But what actions the new station leadership will take to remedy the latest mistake remain unclear.
In the meantime, for many in Minnesota’s Somali community, Lyden’s latest debunked story about Ilhan Omar strengthens the long-held view of a station protecting an overzealous and reckless reporter with hidden agenda. It's another data point which re-enforces that perspective.