It's time to stick up for journalism.
July 21, 2003
On Saturday, June 21, Marc Schultz went to get a cup of coffee on his way to work. He is employed at Chapter 11 Discount Books in Atlanta, and it was Harry Potter day, he remembers, so he was bracing himself for the rush.
While standing in line at a Caribou Coffee shop, he read an article his father had printed off the web for him. That article, from the Weekly Planet of Tampa, was called "Weapons of Mass Stupidity: Fox News hits a new lowest common denominator."
Another customer at Caribou Coffee saw Schultz reading the article and called the FBI on him.
On June 24, two FBI agents visited Schultz, 25, at the bookstore.
He writes all about it in an eye-opening article for Creative Loafing Atlanta (altanta.creativeloafing.com/2003-07-17/rant.html).
Here is part of that story: " ' You Marc Schultz?' asks the tall one. He shows me his badge, introduces himself as Special Agent Clay Trippi. After assuring me that I'm not in trouble, he asks if there is someplace we can sit down and talk. We head back to Reference, where a table and chairs are set up. We sit down, and I'm again informed that I am not in trouble. Then, Agent Trippi asks, 'Do you drive a black Nissan Altima?' . . . Despite their reassurances, and despite the fact that I haven't committed any federal offenses (that I know of), I'm starting to feel a bit like I'm in trouble."
Agent Trippi asks him if he was at the Caribou Coffee on Powers Ferry in Atlanta that Saturday morning.
Schultz says yes. Then they ask him what he was carrying into the store.
"Trippi's partner speaks up: 'Any reading material? Papers?' . . . Then Trippi decides to level with me: 'I'll tell you what, Marc. Someone in the shop that day saw you reading something, and thought it looked suspicious enough to call us about. So that's why we're here, just checking it out. Like I said, there's no problem. We'd just like to get to the bottom of this. Now if we can't, then you might have a problem. And you don't want that."
Schultz tells them it was "some kind of leftwing editorial," but he can't recall the exact article. The agents press him for the details: author, title, what it was about.
After they leave, Schultz remembers the "Weapons of Mass Stupidity" story, so he calls the FBI and leaves the details on a phone-answering machine, he writes.
Creative Loafing got comment from Joe Parris, media coordinator for the FBI's Atlanta office. Parris "wouldn't confirm or deny the Schultz interview," Creative Loafing reported. But Parris did say, "In this post-911 era, it is the absolute responsibility of the FBI to follow through on any tips of potential terrorist activity. Are people going to take exception and be inconvenienced by this at times? Oh, yeah. . . . A certain amount of convenience is going to be offset by an increase in security."
I follow up with both Schultz and Parris.
Schultz says, "It just seems so perplexing. My main question is what the FBI thought this document was that constituted such a problem."
Parris says, "As I've explained to Creative Loafing ad nauseam, I can't specifically comment on this particular case even to acknowledge that it's happened. Everybody wants to turn this into a thought-police story. But anytime a citizen calls up with a suspicion of terrorist activity, we have no choice but to follow up on it. We have to err on the side of talking to too many people because God help us if we don't talk to the next Mohammed Atta."
Parris suggests that there may have been something more suspicious about Schultz than merely the article he was reading.
"In general, if someone had called in and said the guy in the line ahead of me was reading an article called 'Weapons of Mass Stupidity,' would that have been taken as a credible suspicion of terrorist activity? No. I'm speaking hypothetically. The caller would have to provide something other than just that. Maybe they thought the article was about weapons of mass destruction and in the post 9/11 era they filled in the blanks. Or maybe there was something about this person's behavior that heightened the suspicion of the caller."
I ask Schultz what might have heightened suspicion. "I can't imagine," he says. "I stirred the cream into my coffee, and I left. Maybe I mumbled something like 'son of a bitch,' or 'unbelievable,' or 'Jesus Christ' while I was in line, but I can't imagine it was anything truly alarming."
He adds that his appearance may have had something to do with the FBI being called in. "I have a beard, I'm dark, I look vaguely Middle Eastern," says Schultz, who is Jewish.
Parris is adamant. "We don't go out and interview people for what they read," he says. "Portraying any incident as us doing this sells the organization short, and it undermines the public trust."
For Schultz, the incident confirms some of his worst fears about the direction the country is heading in.
"I'm very liberal," he says, "and sometimes my friends say I'm giving them some kind of paranoid, nutty stuff, and I agree, but then the FBI shows up."