Is Jill Carroll Really Iraq’s Patty Hearst?

Members of the press are making a lot of assumptions about reporter Jill Carroll and her captivity without much in the way of evidence.

We were thrilled yesterday to hear the news that the sweet-faced, intrepid Jill Carroll had been freed in Iraq. (This reporter was even heard to exclaim something about a marriage proposal to Ms. Carroll.) It isn’t hard to understand why, as the New York Times put it this morning, “her story of pluck and empathy seemed to capture the public’s imagination.” Journalists were particularly affected by her captivity because they saw in her an example of the curiosity and compassion that made them want to pursue their profession to begin with.

And now that she’s out, we’re curious to hear what actually happened to her. If Carroll is the sensitive and committed reporter we have heard she is over the past three months, then it shouldn’t be long before she provides us with more information.

What we find bizarre today is how quickly so many people, both in the blogosphere and mainstream outlets, have jumped to conclusions about her with almost no facts at hand. Based on a brief interview she gave just hours after being released during which, still dressed in the traditional clothes of a Muslim woman, she said she was “treated well” by her captors, a whole set of assumptions have quickly surfaced.

It wasn’t even 10 AM yesterday before John Podhoretz wrote the following on the collective National Review blog, The Corner: “It’s wonderful that she’s free, but after watching someone who was a hostage for three months say on television she was well-treated because she wasn’t beaten or killed — while being dressed in the garb of a modest Muslim woman rather than the non-Muslim woman she actually is — I expect there will be some Stockholm syndrome talk in the coming days.”

Podhoretz’s comments were made even before the Times reported this morning that Carroll was videotaped just prior to her release voicing support for the insurgency, saying that the “mujahedeen are good people fighting an honorable fight, a good fight.”

While that is disturbing on its face — especially considering that her translator was killed by her captors when she was abducted — it’s absolutely impossible to draw any conclusions about her state of mind or her politics at this point. As Christian Science Monitor editor Richard Bergenheim told USA Today, “When you’re making a video and having to recite certain things with three men with machine guns standing over you, you’re probably going to say exactly what you’re told to say.” The brief interview Carroll gave just after being released — though not as scandalous to our eyes as to Podhoretz’s — must also be taken with a large grain of salt. The woman had just emerged from three months of sitting in a room, cut off from the world, and had apparently been told by her captors that she would be killed if she contacted Americans or went to the Green Zone.

Still, based on these few confused comments and the image of Carroll covered in a headscarf, the idea that she has somehow become Iraq’s Patty Hearst is everywhere today. Even the Times article had a long digression about the Stockholm syndrome, with an expert hypothetically diagnosing her: “People can feel helpless and hopeless, and any small act of kindness — not killing her, giving her food, letting her have a shower — can lead to bonding with the captor.”

The most egregious form this jumping to conclusions took was on the Don Imus show yesterday, in a disgusting exchange between Imus and his executive producer, Bernard McGuirk (incidentally, also before the troubling pre-release tape emerged). McGuirk said, “She strikes me as the kind of woman who would wear one of those suicide vests. You know, walk into the, try and sneak into the Green Zone … She cooked with them, lived with them … She may be carrying Habib’s baby at this point.”

That isn’t just irresponsible speculation - it’s absolute lunacy.

But some positive judgments about Carroll are guilty of nearly the same sin: jumping to conclusions without any evidence. The newspaper that championed her, the Christian Science Monitor and the one where she seems to have had many friends, the Washington Post, both wrote friendly and almost fawning pieces today about Carroll. Certainly, her release is a happy occasion, and we can forgive a certain degree of boosterism arising from the emotion of the moment. But at some point, the papers will have to forget that they know her and take a hard look at the facts — lest they be just as negligent as news organizations that attribute to her all kinds of syndromes and sympathies.

A little bit of time is the best prescription here. Give Carroll a chance to tell her story — it will probably provide great insight into the world of Iraqi kidnappings, which take place on Baghdad’s streets multiple times every day.

It seems unfitting and unfair that, after weeks of patiently reporting the twists and turns of her fate, the press should now leap to premature conclusions based on nothing more than speculation and personal bias.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.