Did bloggers cause Cordoba mosque controversy?

Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son Christian Regenhard was killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks, speaks to board members during a Landmarks Commission's hearing on the proposed Cordoba Mosque to be built near the site of the former World Trade Center in New York July 13, 2010. REUTERS/Keith Bedford (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)

The two-thirds of Americans who oppose the Cordoba House might argue that theirs is a fairly understandable reaction against an ill-advised project. Some, such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, say that their opposition is part of a concerted effort that needs to be investigated.

And this Washington Post story by Michelle Boorstein argues that if not for a couple of bloggers, Americans may never have become terribly interested in a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero:

Long before President Obama waded into the vociferous debate over a mosque near Ground Zero, a group of conservative writers and bloggers critical of Islam had seized on the issue and helped transform it into a national political spectacle.

While some have dismissed them as bigoted attention-seekers, their attacks on the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan have gained currency in recent weeks among some Republican leaders. And their influence appears to be growing.

Most of the story is about two bloggers — Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. But I’m not sure the story makes the case that, according to the headline, they “impact N.Y.C. mosque debate mightily.” These bloggers have been blogging about any number of issues related to Islam for years, apparently. Is their continued blogging the reason for the debate reaching Defcon 2? Or are other factors more in play? I think it’s without question that these bloggers have had some impact, but I’m not entirely sure if the case is made about the level of impact. I mean, I think the New York Post has been covering this issue almost daily for months, right?

We get a quote from Cliff May, head of a conservative foreign policy group and the former New York Times foreign correspondent and Rocky Mountain News associate editor, saying that staff on the Hill read the sites at a time when the major media isn’t covering these subjects. But, of course, Cliff May’s own writing against the mosque has been syndicated in newspapers across the country and linked all over the internet. Here and here, for instance. And I’m pretty sure, based on those and other writings, that he’d be more likely to caution against overemphasizing the importance of a shrill marginal blogger like Pamela Geller when discussing a mainstream political view than to say that leading opponents of the mosque project go to her for her insights.

The story says that Newt Gingrich will be appearing at a rally against the mosque, something I believe he has denied. We’re told that “they” advise the FBI and other security agencies, although the story later only discusses Robert Spencer’s consultation.

The details on Geller are interesting. I had heard of her before but didn’t realize quite how colorful she was. (A video featuring her in, well, a bikini is available on the Post‘s web site.)

But while we do get quotes from Daniel Pipes praising Spencer’s work, it might be nice to have more feedback from those who dismiss “them as bigoted attention-seekers” or evidence that “their attacks on the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan have gained currency in recent weeks among some Republican leaders.”

And sorry, but this quote from Charles Johnson, of all people, just doesn’t cut it:

Charles Johnson, creator of the national security blog Little Green Footballs, called Spencer and Geller “very influential.” Listening to Gingrich’s comments about Islamic law, he said, “Newt sounded a lot like he got it from Pam Geller.”

I mean, you can read this utterly fascinating and provocative and New York Times profile of the erratic Johnson from earlier this year to see why he might not be the most credible witness, but even if he were, I’d like to think we’d have more to hang a hat on then someone saying that someone else “sounded like” they gleaned information from a third person. And you could probably quote hundreds of actual conservatives who think Geller and some of the other anti-Islam bloggers are fringe.

We’re told that “their” efforts have had an impact because nearly 7 in 10 Americans are following the story and 61 percent oppose the mosque, etc., etc. But correlation does not mean causation. Unless the poll asked Americans if their change in views was due to Pamela Geller’s bikini videos, there is really no way to tell if it was the videos or the media coverage or the political interest or what, exactly.

I guess I’m getting the feeling that Spencer is taken much more seriously than Geller but that even so, neither one is as influential in bringing this issue national attention as much as good old fashioned reporters and politicians have been.

I started reading about this story back in December 2009, when the New York Times covered it for the first time. My better half critiqued that story with remarkable prescience. Here’s the ending:

Times reporters Ralph Blumenthal and Sharaf Mowjood really should have probably asked some more complex questions about what is motivating the construction of prayer center — but instead were too willing to buy into the symbolism of the story and take a lot of platitudes about tolerance from Imam Feisal and his associates at face value. While the development of Imam Feisal’s prayer center near Ground Zero may be encouraging on some level, the reality of the story is much more complex and less reassuring than the Times would have you believe.

And the very first comment to that thread was from someone who said:

I am going to be frankly honest here: the thought of Ground Zero in Manhattan as some kind of Islamic epicenter was kind of disturbing to me.

And then the comment thread gets into a heated discussion of the topic. Which is kind of what you might expect. This is a natural response to a completely mainstream news story. So I guess I’d like to see something a bit more tangible about bloggers creating a controversy. It’s not the Occam’s Razor explanation for why people have developed pretty straightforward opinions about a topic that New York papers, at least, have been covering since last year.

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  • http://maryrhoads.blogspot.com Marie Therese 1

    I have never seen or heard Geller or Spencer and the disrespectful, hurtful insult of this mosque business hit my heart and deeply disturbed me,regardless of what anyone else says or does. …

  • Dave

    The Internet interconnects us so intimately that trying to isolate the influence of one or two bloggers on a wildfire story is kind of like reading tea leaves, not journalism.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    I think they organized protests and people who read their blogs went to the protests. So the physical protests gave news outlets something to cover and kept the story in the news.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    It’s certainly true that a protest can be a good news hook. But it’s also probably worth noting that their protests did not get much media coverage.

    I think someone should do a tick-tock of how this story developed. It would be difficult to trace, of course, but it might be interesting.

  • Peterk

    The problem is that the MSM fails to ask the hard questions of people like Imam Rauf. They automatically accept them as ‘moderates’ what ever that means. Geller and Spencer spend their time education the rest of the world of what the MSM doesn’t. unfortunately Geller or Spencer tell what the MSM wants to hear.

  • David@RedLetterBelievers

    Isn’t it interesting that the attack turns on those who shined the light on the problem in the first place. That is so typical about today. Forget the issue, slam the people who bring it up for discussion.

    David, Red Letter Believers
    Salt and Light

  • Bill P

    I’ve often been amazed how society communicates shared views with or without technology. From coffee breaks in a million break rooms to breakfast chit chat to drinks after work, the culture communicates quicker than we often give credit—especially about shared gut reactions. Human interaction may be quickened by the internet, but it transcends technology.

    As Someone once said: “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!”

    To blame bloggers (or news casters or editorial writers or beat reporters) seems to me only an attempt to shift attention from the cause of the unease.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Geller and other bloggers have been successful at getting people to take action against the mosque in NYC– by organizing marches, getting folks to email board members, and by pushing the “Ground Zero Mosque” label. They’ve had similar success against other mosques in other parts of the country–by getting people to move from “I disapprove of the mosque,” where 70% of Americans are–to “I am going to take action to stop the mosque.”

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    This non-sequitur caught my eye:

    Geller has become a prominent voice in the debate despite the fact that she once promoted the view that Obama is Malcolm X’s love child.

    Despite? How would her having suggested that render her unable to be a “prominent voice?”

    Personally, I derived no little amusement from that post of hers about Malcolm X, coming as it did on the heels of the Trig Truther rumors. But nobody expresses the same surprise that Andrew Sullivan is a “prominent voice” about any unrelated topic despite his advocacy of the Trig rumors.

  • Sandra

    Whether bloggers caused the Ground Zero mosque controversy or not, I still note that it would appear to be only in the ‘alternative’ or ‘new’ media that one can learn about the difficulties that the Greek Orthodox are having in obtaining a permit to rebuild their Church that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    The New York Times published an article on the Park51 project last December. Is the Washington Post admitting that bloggers now influence American thought more than the New York Times?

    Is the MSM admitting print journalism’s day of influence is done?

  • Jettboy

    I can understand why there are people who claim that Obama is a Muslim as I somewhat believe that myself. His own words and actions show him to be at least partial to Islam over Christianity. Although religiously I believe he might be more Christian than Muslim, that doesn’t mean he didn’t become a Christian and remain a closet Muslim for political reasons. Personally, I think he would have remained Muslim if it didn’t cost him politically no matter how good or bad that fact might be.

    Besides, just because you *claim* to be a Christian doesn’t mean other Christians will accept you as one. I speak from experience on that one. No matter how much I claim to be a Christian (and I do believe that I am one), there will be a vast number who will say there is no way I can ever be one because of my religion. My guess is that a lot of the number in the poll see it that way with Obama. He may claim he is Christian, but there are a lot of Christians who believe his words and actions say otherwise. Since he is not a Christian (in their eyes) then he must be something else. If the past give any clues, they will be thinking, then that means he is Muslim.