NBC's "The Wanted" Delivers the Goods

August 3, 2009

NBC aired a highly unusual show on July 20 called The Wanted, which has provoked a storm of controversy over its style, methods and content. Is it journalism, entertainment, infotainment, or To Catch a (Terrorist) Predator? It is, perhaps, a bit of all of the above. But most importantly, and the reasons for all the condemnation, is that it has given rare exposure to the terrorist mentality, it has shown positive benefits stemming from the war in Iraq , and it has highlighted media hypocrisy.

The premise of the show is that a team of individuals goes around the globe to confront and attempt to bring to justice terrorists and international war criminals that live in plain sight, yet seem to be escaping justice. In the premier episode, the target was Najmuddin Faraj Ahmed, also known as NAJMUDDIN FARAJ AHMEDMullah Krekar. Krekar, by various accounts, either started or inspired the terrorist organization based in Iraq, Ansar Al Islam (Helpers of Islam), described on the show's website as "a group which has targeted U.S.-led coalition forces as well as Iraqi and non-Iraqi civilians." It describes Krekar as allegedly having been complicit in the 2003 bombing of the United Nation's mission in Iraq , and "training and recruiting foreign fighters to serve as snipers and suicide bombers." Also, Krekar was convicted in Jordan for his role in terrorism and his links to al Qaeda.

The show's cast includes a retired Navy Seal and a retired Green Beret, who organize the surveillance and confrontation of their target. In addition, the cast includes an NBC News producer and David Crane, a former international war crimes prosecutor. According to the New York Times, in a preview of the show, "Crane praised the series for tackling cases of possible criminals who are 'living normal lives under the protection of a domestic law and are trying to avoid justice.'" He told the Times that "We're just here to seek justice for people that have been so victimized by international terrorists."

Here is where the Times has a problem: "It is the 'we'-the cooperation between the former intelligence officers and NBC News-that has raised red flags among a number of veteran journalists, including some within NBC. They say they find it troubling that 'The Wanted' blurs the boundaries between government agents and supposedly impartial journalists."

The Times also compared the show to "To Catch a Predator," "the 'Dateline NBC' franchise that showed police officers and journalists working in concert to catch possible sex offenders when they tried to meet minors. Some have even pre-emptively labeled the series 'To Catch a Terrorist.'"

And they worry that the network's pursuit of these characters could hamper the role of law enforcement officials in putting these people away.

A guest column in the New York Daily News calls the show "outright dangerous," and says NBC should be ashamed. The author of the column, Lydia Khalil, a former counterterrorism analyst for the New York City Police Department and currently a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that Mullah Krekar is "by all accounts, a marginalized and constricted figure." Even if that was true, we shouldn't forget or forgive his past, which I will get to shortly.

And the Washington Post-owned Slate.com really took offense. Slate TV critic Troy Patterson blasted the show for its content, its glitzy style, and its manner of journalism. "The staging of conversations," says Patterson, "just for instance-render The Wanted inadmissible as journalism. Despite some others-frenetic pandering to base instincts, risible action-flick camerawork-the show nonetheless fails to amuse. If it's not news and not entertainment, then what might it be?"

Some of these criticisms are justified, in terms of lines being crossed, or blurred. But speaking of lines crossed, what about how a network like NBC's cable news network MSNBC has turned over its evening line-up to a series of shows completely biased in favor of the current Administration, and so hostile to the previous one? This, at a time when NBC's parent company, General Electric, used a loophole to get the government to guarantee close to a hundred billion dollars of its debt, according to a recent report by ProPublica. "The company [GE] did not initially qualify for the program under which the government sought to unfreeze credit markets by guaranteeing debt sold by banking firms," cited the report, which also was carried by the rival Washington Post. "But regulators soon loosened the eligibility requirements, in part because of behind-the-scenes appeals from GE."

And what about the New York Times working with government agents to expose classified government programs designed to track al-Qaeda financial transactions, or to intercept their communications?

While "The Wanted" has potential journalistic problems, the first episode at least provided a great service, and did so in a way that was entertaining, and even compelling. It showed the best of U.S. servicemen, who had recently served for and fought for their country, and who helped to liberate Iraq . The person they were pursuing, Mullah Krekar, is a convicted terrorist¯convicted in Jordan in 2004¯who was allowed to live freely in Norway , though all the branches of Norway 's government wanted him sent back to Iraq to face justice. Their laws prevented them from sending him to a country where he might be executed or tortured.

It showed how Iraqis, especially those from Kurdistan, viewed the positive changes that the U.S. had brought to Iraq; namely, freedom from Saddam Hussein's reign of terror, a measure of freedom and democracy, and a functioning justice system.

How does the military's Special Ops community view this show? According to an article in the Washington Times, many of them are pleased. "'Initially, they were very suspicious of [the show] because they thought it was Hollywood trying to make something dramatic out of this situation,' said one person in the Department of Defense's special operations community who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his position.

Through a lengthy interview, "The Wanted" exposed Krekar for the bloody terrorist that he is. Normally, what is found in this interview can only be found on MEMRI.org, the great website that monitors and translates much of the hateful rhetoric coming out of the Middle East.

Too often, such as when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured and his mug shot shown, it became fodder for Saturday Night Live, and treated as a joke. Anyone who saw Mullah Krekar being interviewed on "The Wanted" was watching the mind and face of a terrorist, someone who is perfectly willing to kill for his twisted ideology.

We'll see how the efforts of "The Wanted" team turn out. But it has brought attention to a serious issue that had gotten way to little attention from the mainstream media, who aren't comfortable making such moral judgments as this show was willing to do. You can actually watch both episodes online, at least as of this writing, and decide for yourself.

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Copyright ©2009 Roger Aronoff

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi. He can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.