Reporter Michael Fechter, whose investigative pursuit of the Sami Al-Arian story helped make The Tampa Tribune a lightning rod, is leaving the paper to work for the documentary film maker who first linked Al-Arian to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Fechter, who has worked at the Tribune for 17 years, was the first newspaper reporter to expose the University of South Florida professor’s involvement in the terrorist organization that claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings and hundreds of deaths in Israel’s occupied territories.

Fechter said his early reporting on the computer science professor was inspired by Steve Emerson’s 1994 documentary “Jihad in America,” which initially linked Al-Arian to the Islamic Jihad.

Both Fechter and Emerson have drawn fire from critics who accuse them of being anti-Muslim and reckless.

Fechter said he will work on a Web site Emerson is developing that will focus on Islamic extremists and their organizations. “I think what we learned in the Al-Arian saga is that there are people in this country who would prefer we not know exactly who they are and exactly what they’re doing,” Fechter said, “and to me this is a continuation of the journalistic enterprise to disclose that.”

Critic Calls Them Anti-Muslim

Ahmed Bedier, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Fechter’s move “confirms our suspicious all along that Michael Fechter has been acting as an agent for Steven Emerson, unethically acting as an agent for Steven Emerson, and saw Emerson more than just as a source but also as a mentor.”

“Steven Emerson, who has a well-known history of Muslim bashing, would only hire someone he trusts and that relationship of trust would take time to build and develop,” Bedier said. The move “just calls into question all the work that Michael Fechter has done for the Tribune, specifically, on the Sami Al-Arian trial. The Tribune should revisit his work for authenticity to confirm, to verify the information that’s there to make sure he’s not the Judith Miller of Tampa, where he’s not just acting as an impartial unbiased journalist to make sure he wasn’t acting as an agent and an advocate.”

Reporter Asked To Leave Paper

Tribune Executive Editor Janet Coats said she’s comfortable with the work Fechter has done at the paper. “He’s always been a very careful and precise journalist,” she said. “If anything, he’s erred on the side of being conservative in his approach to his reporting.”

Still, when Fechter gave his editors two weeks notice Monday, they asked him to leave by the end of the day. Coats said that’s because while she can strongly defend “every bit of Mike’s coverage,” she doesn’t know enough about Emerson to defend his work against charges of bias.


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