BROOKE GLADSTONE: Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called "20th hijacker," tried to enter a guilty plea last week but he wasn't allowed; and then this week he was allowed but then he decided not to. Now the most confusing part of the sentence I just read wasn't about Moussaoui's legal maneuvering. It's the phrase "the so-called 20th hijacker." Who's calling him that? Not the government. It's a media-born phrase that pops up again and again in AP- articles, on all the networks, in countless newspapers. Last week the New York Times ran an article explaining why the government doesn't believe he's the 20th hijacker. Then the Times called him the so-called "20th hijacker" the very next day! Joining us now is Toni LOCY who's been covering the trial for USA Today, the so called "nation's newspaper." Thanks for joining us.
TONI LOCY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well we invited you on because in the major papers we noticed that your stories were among the few that regularly avoided the phrase "the so-called 20th hijacker." How come?
TONI LOCY: Two reasons. First, it does not say that in the indictment. The charges are all conspiracies. There are no actual substantive offenses alleged. And often what an indictment doesn't say is more important than what it does say. In other words what's not in there can be critical to understanding the government's case. Secondly, I have law enforcement sources who were telling me from the beginning that they were concerned that the government does not have any concrete evidence of a direct contact between Mr. Moussaoui and any of the hijackers. Those FBI agents believe that there's a good possibility that Mr. Moussaoui was sent here on another mission; a mission separate and apart from 9/11. For those two reasons, we decided to be cautious and not call him "the 20th hijacker" as others have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you rejected the phrase right from the start.
TONI LOCY: Yes. That's correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you ever asked your colleagues why they stick to the phrase?
TONI LOCY:No, I haven't. I, I just decided not to get into it. I think that some papers are doing it because it is a quick way to make a reference for people to make a connection to -oh, who - that's who that guy is. But the problem is, is that it's just not in the indictment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think are the consequences of using that phrase as often as reporters seem to be doing?
TONI LOCY:The defense would say that it could taint the jury pool. Potential jurors could associate that term with him without even thinking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why do you think that other people didn't come to the same conclusion you came to regarding the "so-called 20th hijacker?"
TONI LOCY:Well I know from covering the various hearings that there are people who aren't used to reading indictments or sitting in court and listening to often very complicated legal arguments. I mean the stuff is complicated. There's no doubt about it. But people I think aren't reading the indictment as carefully as maybe they should be and aren't listening as carefully as they should be. For example, he was very definitive about not pleading guilty to the 9/11 part of it, but on television and in newspapers people were reporting that he in fact had, had said that he wanted to plead guilty to the 9/11 conspiracy. That's the exact opposite of what he said. And that happened again after the guilty plea fell apart. There were people on television making the same mistakes over and over and over again.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well Canada's "our neighbor to the north." Noriega was always the "Panamanian strongman." These are cliches. Do you think there's any other reason why reporters are taken by the phrase other than sheer laziness?
TONI LOCY: Well I think that there's so many questions about September 11th that remain unanswered, and the biggest one was why were there 5 hijackers on 3 of the flights but only 4 on one? And that raises and begs the question there had to be somebody else out there. And Mr. Moussaoui is the only person who's been caught, so I think that some people have jumped to the conclusion and made the connection.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know the court that the trial is taking place in -- is there a cliche for that place? Is that called "the Rocket Docket?"
TONI LOCY:That's correct. And they take pride in that by the way. So it's not something that was, you know, made up by-- by the media. The defense bar calls it that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you've used the phrase?
TONI LOCY: Oh, I've used it; yes. I have. And the judges over there are actually proud of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you call John Walker Lindh "the American Taliban?"
TONI LOCY: Yes. I did. [LAUGHTER] I did. I did. Because he had, he was on TV saying that -- admitting that he was a Taliban fighter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course you know the correct phrase is "the American Talib."
TONI LOCY: Talib. Is that right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you don't eschew the apt cliche -- just the inaccurate, actionable ones.
TONI LOCY: Correct. Correct. If you're going to use one, make sure you're correct about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Toni LOCY, thanks a lot.
TONI LOCY: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Toni LOCY is a USA Today reporter covering the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, accused September 11th co-conspirator.