Oops: CNN, WaPo Jumped on CAIR's License Plate 'Hate' Theory, Now Disproved

On April 22 and 27, CNN and The Washington Post both helped forward Islamic advocacy group CAIR's publicity stunt which demeaned an anonymous Virginia motorist as a racist. The Post finally found the driver on Thursday - and apparently, both news outlets jumped the gun, as the owner claimed that the numbers on his license plate were a tribute to his favorite NASCAR drivers, not secret code for "Heil Hitler."

Anchor Rick Sanchez devoted a brief on his Rick's List program on Tuesday to presenting CAIR's side of the story on the controversy. After showing a picture of the pickup truck and the plate in question, as well as the anti-Islamic message on the truck's tailgate, Sanchez explained that "CAIR...also noticed the vanity license plate. It reads '14CV88.' CAIR says that is a coded hate message. We're told the number eight is for the eighth letter in the alphabet, 'H.' Two eights equals 'H.H.' for 'Heil Hitler.' Fourteen represents imprisoned white supremacist David Lane's motto about securing the future for white children." The anchor didn't mention the owner's side of the story.

Did anyone at CNN or the Washington Post consider the possibility that the story was underbaked until they communicated with the driver? Did they consider someone might find the driver and his truck and be spurred to angry talk and/or violence based on the media's incomplete accounts? The Washington Post, at least, printed an update on Thursday to their initial article from the 22nd (the ball, obviously, is also in Sanchez's court now, as well, especially since he went after NewsBusters for not calling him before we took the "cheap shot" at him). The Post's Brigid Schulte returned to the scene of her incomplete story and provided the driver's perspective in her Thursday article, "Virginia driver denies license plate had coded racist message."

Douglas Story, a Chantilly dump truck driver for the Virginia Department of Transportation, says he wanted to grab people's attention when he paid $224.90 to have a mural of the burning World Trade Center detailed onto the tailgate of his Ford F-150 along with a sticker that reads: "Everything I ever needed to know about Islam I learned on 9/11."

But he got more than he bargained for when a photo of his pickup went viral on the Web last week. Motorists and Muslim groups complained that his Virginia vanity license plate - 14CV88 - was really code for neo-Nazi, white supremacist sentiments. The state Department of Motor Vehicles voted last week to recall Story's plates and force him to buy new ones.

"There is absolutely no way I'd have anything to do with Hitler or Nazis," Story said Wednesday. He contacted The Washington Post after an article about his plate appeared last week; the state, citing privacy rules, had declined to release the identity of the plate's owner. "My sister-in-law and my niece are Jewish. I went to my niece's bat mitzvah when she turned 13 three years ago. Does that sound like something an anti-Semite would do?"

Story says the numbers 14 and 88 on his plate were not references to a white power slogan or "Heil Hitler," as the Council on American-Islamic Relations theorized, but an homage to his favorite NASCAR drivers: Tony Stewart, who drives car No. 14, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who drives No. 88.

Story applied for the vanity plate in March 2009, shortly after Earnhardt changed his car number from 8 to 88 and Stewart changed his from 20 to 14.

CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said his group looked into the meaning of the numbers 14 and 88 after receiving complaints about Story's license plates....Hooper said he doesn't buy Story's version "given the overt anti-Muslim bigotry displayed on the truck and the Confederate flags and their historic connotation of racism....

Story received a certified letter last week from the DMV ordering him to get new plates. And his boss told him that he could no longer park on VDOT property with the anti-Islam mural. So Story spent an afternoon getting new randomized plates and peeling the mural off by hand.

"I feel naked," he said.

Story's account does seems to square away. Both Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. did indeed change their numbers in the middle of 2008. Also, Schulte's Washington Post article from April 22nd, which quoted Hooper, gave the impression that the CAIR spokesman profiled the Virginia man (Schulte also only provided the advocacy group's side of the story in this initial article).

Hooper at first thought the picture [of Story's truck] was a Photoshopped hoax. But when he called the DMV and discovered the plate was registered in 2005 to a Ford F-150 pickup truck, Hooper started to worry. "If the license plate had been on a VW Beetle with nothing else on it, or a Volvo station wagon, no one would probably have noticed," said Hooper. "But when the Confederate flag is thrown in...it shows the convergence of anti-government and anti-Islamic sentiments that unfortunately seem to be growing."

Neither the Washington Post nor CNN made the effort when they ran their initial stories to provide Story's side of the controversy. They could have been thwarted by the privacy rules, but they unquestioningly ran with CAIR's take on the license plate.

-Matthew Balan is a news analyst at the Media Research Center. You can follow him on Twitter here.