Islamophobia means never saying you’re sorry

From my growing guilt file, one story keeps popping up. The Portland Press Herald in Maine ran a story on September 11 about a local observance of the end of Ramadan. The story ran on the top of the front page, I believe, and had a large photo with it.

So what’s the problem? Well, readers didn’t love the paper that day. They felt the paper should have given more prominence to the anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks and less prominence to the Ramadan celebration. Apparently there was little or no coverage to the anniversary of the terrorist attack. The editor’s customers wrote him many letters. He responded:

Our coverage of the conclusion of the local Ramadan observance was excellent and we are proud of it. We did not adequately cover 9/11 on the 9/11 anniversary, which also should have been front-page news, in my opinion. Please see this week’s column for additional commentary on this topic.

Well, readers took the apology pretty well. But other media figures flipped out.

Time Magazine columnist James Poniewozik interpreted the apology to mean this:

Paper to Readers: Sorry for Portraying Muslims as Human

That’s certainly not how I took the editor’s apology to his customers, but Poniewozik’s sentiment was widely shared in the media. Many felt that no apology was necessary. Which brings us to an NPR “On the Media” segment from this week. You can listen to the segment or read the transcript. It begins with host Bob Garfield explaining that readers were upset that a Muslim holiday pushed the 9/11 remembrances off the front page and that the editor thought things should have been handled better. He quotes Poniewozik and brings on the Press Herald editor Richard Connor.

It’s an extremely contentious interview, although it begins fairly calmly:

BOB GARFIELD: All right, so what was the matter with the story that you ran, the original story?

RICHARD CONNOR: Nothing. There was nothing wrong with our coverage of the local observance of the conclusion of Ramadan. We’re proud of the way we covered it. We’ll cover it again next year and next year and the next year.

We did not cover the 9/11 anniversary on the 9/11 date the way that we should have. We had a lot of coverage planned for 9/12, the day after. So if you read the apology closely, in my opinion, you’ll see that I supported the decision to cover Ramadan. What I questioned is how we could have essentially omitted coverage of 9/11 on the same day.

I think that without doubt some of the people who complained about the lack of 9/11 coverage were really couching anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic attitudes, but I think they were hiding behind that.

BOB GARFIELD: And you apologized to them. “Many saw Saturday’s front-page story and photo regarding the local observance of the end of Ramadan as offensive,” and the remainder of your 700-word mea culpa is an apology for, yes, the oversight of not covering the 9/11 anniversary but somehow treading on their sensibilities. And I’m having trouble with the idea of you apologizing for covering the end of Ramadan.

RICHARD CONNOR: I think you’re misreading it. We will cover Ramadan locally, and the observance of it from, you know, now to whenever. The apology is for not giving the play to 9/11 that many of our readers felt it should have. The two are disconnected.

BOB GARFIELD: I understand, but let me ask you this, please. What would you say was the preponderance of the attitudes expressed in these angry emails?

RICHARD CONNOR: The preponderance of emails that I received were from people who said, how could you have missed the 9/11 coverage on 9/11? What motivated them to write that, I don’t know.

BOB GARFIELD: You remarked about treading on the sensibilities of your readers. If their sensibilities were trod upon by your covering the observance of the end of Ramadan, isn’t that kind of their problem?

RICHARD CONNOR: They weren’t. If you want to stick to that, you can. The emails that I received were predominantly directed at the omission of more coverage of 9/11.

Garfield is convinced that Connor was apologizing for covering Ramadan and Connor says he was apologizing for failing to properly cover the 9/11 anniversary. After a few rounds of this, it ends with the editor simply getting off the phone.

Now, I think it’s certainly true that the editor did not compose the best apology. In fact, he clarified his own apology after getting hammered on it. I find it surprising that the media doesn’t understand reader concern with the failure to cover 9/11 on September 11 in an edition that prominently features a Ramadan celebration.

And yet this whole thing sort of reminds me of those fights you have with family members where you’re fighting about dinner but really you’re fighting about something much more difficult to deal with — hurt feelings or communication failures or resentment or something like that.

Readers are probably a bit sick of the mainstream media approach to covering Islam. I think they’re probably ready — many years after they first woke up to the threat of Muslim extremists — for some more substantive coverage of what in this religion inspires such a dramatically different understanding of rights, freedom, honor and virtue. And I think many journalists are really convinced that America has an Islamophobia problem and they think that this editor was a traitor to the cause. Where some readers probably would like more coverage of the underlying issues, sometimes the response of some journalists seems to be “If we write one more story accusing Americans of Islamophobia while asserting that Islam inspires nothing but peace, we’ll have world peace.”

So what do you think? Was the editor actually apologizing for presenting Muslims as humans? Were readers wrong to complain? Did the paper handle the 9/11 anniversary well? And what do you think about the media response to the kerfuffle?

We covered some of the many religion news stories about concerns Muslims had about the likely coincidence of the end of Ramadan with the 9/11 anniversary. It’s interesting that it ended up being a religion news story that led to conflict.

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  • Ian Hunter

    I think the editor handled everything very well; the media response is the issue. (The newspaper in general mishandled the 9/11 coverage, and I don’t know to what extend the editor is cuplable; that’s not what I’m addressing.)

    You said it very well: “I think they’re probably ready … for some more substantive coverage of what in this religion inspires such a dramatically different understanding of rights, freedom, honor and virtue.”

    The problem seems to be that in general, the media is too chicken to get into what we all want to hear about. Instead, they seem to either jump to politically correct defenses of Islam, or implications that Muslims are all dangerous. There’s no discussion of the substance of Islam that you reference in the quote above.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Conner would have been better off if he’d just said, “Our 9/11 coverage sucked” and not mentioned Ramadan.

    If “the two are disconnected,” as Conner claimed, why did he lead with Ramadan coverage:

    We made a news decision on Friday that offended many readers and we sincerely apologize for it.

    Many saw Saturday’s front-page story and photo regarding the local observance of the end of Ramadan as offensive, particularly on the day, Sept. 11, when our nation and the world were paying tribute to those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.

  • liberty

    I find it particularly striking that the editor immediately ascribes negative motives to those who complained. There is no evidence that they complained about the lack of 9/11 coverage because of ‘anti-Muslim’ attitudes but he states it as a fact. Somehow I think that intimating that those who complained are bigots isn’t good business.

    I do wonder… does the paper cover religious holidays from other religious groups in the region with as much thoroughness?

  • Ben

    Where some readers probably would like more coverage of the underlying issues, sometimes the response of some journalists seems to be “If we write one more story accusing Americans of Islamophobia while asserting that Islam inspires nothing but peace, we’ll have world peace.”

    I really don’t think the problem is that readers cannot find coverage of the roots of violence within the Muslim community. Good coverage is there to find going all the way back to the days after 9/11. That’s not even to mention the many books that one could crack, which are probably a better option anyway for a complicated topic.

    Instead we are just coming off a heavily politicized mosque controversy that some in the media didn’t play along with because the Muslims in question were manifestly not the violent sort. That’s the kind of judgment — rather than running with the demagogues — that I would hope the press would use.

  • http://www.justopenthebook.com David, justopenthebook.com

    I thought the editor did his best to address the concerns of the readers. The interviewer seems to want to open an opinion on Islam can of worms, when the editor simply did his job. He left out 9/11, he got complaints, he simply responded for his paper not putting what the readers thought was important in the paper. From my point of view, anything beyond that is just these other media outlets trying to create a headline and fuel the Islamophobia. It is so tiresome to see how often this tactic of “well aren’t you against what these narrow minded people are for?” is used to make something out of nothing.

  • Jerry

    Garfield is convinced that Connor was apologizing for covering Ramadan

    I’m not the mind reader you are, Mollie, so I can’t attest to the correctness of your insight. But from my ordinary view, you’ve possibly conflated aggressive questioning with pushing a point-of-view. Or did I miss where Garfield admitted to that perspective?

    I think your editorializing about Islam in your post, what in this religion inspires such a dramatically different understanding of rights, freedom, honor and virtue. , led you to make that judgment about Garfield.

    From my side of the screen, Christians and Muslims both have an incredible diversity in what they believe their scriptures have to say about rights, freedom, honor and virtue.

    After doing some research, I found that this split between those who consider Islam a positive force for the same virtues as Christians and those that believe the opposite goes all the way back to the Founding Father’s generation. And that illustrates one example of that the educational system and media have utterly failed to provide historical context.

    Toward Islam itself the Founding generation held differing views. An evangelical Baptist spokesman denounced “Mahomet” as a “hateful” figure who, unlike the meek and gentle Jesus, spread his religion at the point of a sword. A Presbyterian preacher in rural South Carolina dusted off Grotius’ 17th century reproach that the “religion of Mahomet originated in arms, breathes nothing but arms, is propagated by arms.” Other, more influential observers had a different view of Muslims. In 1783, the president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, cited a study showing that “Mohammadan” morals were “far superior to the Christian.” Another New Englander believed that the “moral principles that were inculcated by their teachers had a happy tendency to render them good members of society.” The reference here, as other commentators made clear, was to Islam’s belief, which it shared with Christianity, in a “future state of rewards and punishments,” a system of celestial carrots and sticks which the Founding generation considered necessary to guarantee good social conduct.

    http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0205/tolerance.html

  • Jeffrey

    Readers are probably a bit sick of the mainstream media approach to covering Islam. I think they’re probably ready — many years after they first woke up to the threat of Muslim extremists — for some more substantive coverage of what in this religion inspires such a dramatically different understanding of rights, freedom, honor and virtue.

    Are they? Given the frequency you write on this issue, I know this is your viewpoint, but I”m not sure “readers” really want it as much as some viewpoint elites want it.

    The truth, I imagine, is that people don’t know much about Islam generally and they have a lot of anxiety. Whether it rises to “Islamaphobia” (a word no one but you has used in this discussion) or just unfamiliarity and uncertainty, it’s hard to tell. That’s where journalists come in. Journalists can provide insights into people’s lives that make them more comfortable or have more information. That’s what a story about Ramadan does.

    A story about Ramadan may not satisfy the Hemingway test for information “readers” need to understand why Muslims have “such a dramatically different understanding of rights, freedom, honor and virtue” but I’m not sure much reporting can satisfy that concern.

    Ultimately, I imagine most Americans have less “Islamaphobia” than liberals and the media are willing to admit, but probably more “Islamaphobia” than opinion elites on the right are comfortable acknowledging.

    In terms of the editor, I think he was right to apologize because his reader’s were upset, but I’m glad he defended their coverage of Ramadan. His story has changed throughout this affair, so no one really knows what those letters to the editors say. Given how comment sections of newspapers look like when Muslim issues are being discussed, it’s not a leap to suggest that this was as much to do with Islam as 9/11

  • PeterK

    on 9-11 my local paper had interviews with various people one of whom was a young Muslim woman. this was (as I see it) part and parcel of the media’s recent effort to show that Muslims too were victims that day and after. the young woman recounted how her hijab and been pulled by her classmates. and other obnoxious behavior.

    I want as you put it substantive reporting on Muslims in America. I’m tired of seeing reporters quoting CAIR as if they were they only Muslim group in this country qualified to speak for Muslims. I want to see hard questions. Why hasn’t a major paper done a story showing how all the various planned attacks (disrupted or successful) are influenced by various imams. I seriously doubt i’ll see such a story because it goes against the media’s conventional wisdom

    where is the in-depth story about Molly Norris?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Usually a newspaper caters to the background of their readership clientel. Are there that many Moslems in Portland that they would outnumber those interested in the 9-11 anniversary? Some claim that it isn’t the internet that is killing newspapers, but the way the elites in the newspaper world are grossly out of touch with the interests and backgrounds of average Americans.
    Most newspapers used to be run by working-class types who worked their way up from the status of “ink-stained wretches” earning their stripes–and graduate education– on one news beat or more on the way up.

  • laursaurus

    This was a really stupid thing for the paper to do. Is the paper so completely clueless about our own American culture? 9/11 was the most horrific event of my lifetime.
    Can you even imagine if on December 7, 1950, and the newspaper ignored the anniversary of D-day, but instead ran an expose glorifying Japanese culture? Truman or Eisenhower certainly would have had enough backbone not to dodge the issue by saying, “oh well! They have the constitutional right to print it.”
    We need to recognize and commend our fellow citizens of Portland. Not a single riot broke out. There were no violent mobs chanting “Death to Islam!” This disgracefully insensitive debacle could be smoothed over through email and publishing a thoughtful apology. If private donations to NPR completely dry up, perhaps it might occur to them not to blame it on the recession.
    We vowed to “never forget!” immediately after 9/11/01. Those were not empty words to most Americans. If they are trying to give warm fuzzies to Islam, the attempt completely back-fired.

  • Laura S

    I apologize for not reading the rules before posting my comment without my actual first name above as “laursaurus”.

  • Dave

    Was the editor actually apologizing for presenting Muslims as humans? Were readers wrong to complain? Did the paper handle the 9/11 anniversary well? And what do you think about the media response to the kerfuffle?

    No.

    They have a right to complain if they want.

    Clumsily.

    Knee-jerk.

  • Evanston2

    I am amazed that Mr. Garfield said the following: “If their sensibilities were trod upon by your covering the observance of the end of Ramadan, isn’t that kind of their problem?” With readership of print media going down the tubes, isn’t this “kind of” the media’s problem? Even if most complainers were not Press Herald subscribers, how much market share can you alienate? Mr. Connor at least attempted an “inclusive” approach to potential customers, but it seems that Mr. Garfield doesn’t share this viewpoint. I wonder why? Could it be because NPR is publicly subsidized and politically protected? Naaah. Must be Mr. Garfield’s superior “sensibilities.”

  • Dave G.

    I can see why readers would complain. After all, we don’t cover anything about our own heritage without bringing up the bad. Christmas and Easter? That’s when we hear all the nasty and juicy stuff about Jesus, Christianity, and all those other myths and prejudices they generate. An American holiday? Well, we have the balance of how flawed America has been and how far, far, far we have to go. Fair enough. But when readers then, on 9/11, see a piece about anything Islam without the obligatory ‘but here’s the balance of how bad it is’, I can see how they might get a bit suspicious or a little bit upset.

  • Suzanne

    @Dave G. re: coverage of the good and the bad at Easter and Christmas

    That certainly can be the case in large national papers and magazines, but it’s pretty rare in local papers (those about the size of the Portland paper referenced in this story).

    Nearly every paper I ever worked at(all under 90,000 circulation) featured a big Christmas/Easter story, often featuring a photo of a colorful stained glass window, (reproduces well, you know) and local pastors talking about the actual events of the day. Or maybe volunteers at a soup kitchen or other charitable group.

    The Eid coverage in the Portland paper actually seemed pretty comparable to that.

    Of course, there should have been a front-page story about the 9/11 anniversary. The paper made the same mistake that lots of papers do on tragic anniversaries (I’m mostly thinking Pearl Harbor here) — they concentrated on covering the events for stories in the next day’s paper instead of having a sizeable presence in that day’s paper.

    I think Garfield was right to point out the difference between what the editor said in his first editorial (which even he acknowledged missed the mark)and his subsequent statements. But then he should have left it at that.

  • http://blog.hichamaged.net/ Hicham Maged

    Mollie, here are my answers for your questions:

    Was the editor actually apologizing for presenting Muslims as humans? Were readers wrong to complain? Did the paper handle the 9/11 anniversary well? And what do you think about the media response to the kerfuffle?

    1. No. Richard Connor wasn’t doing so as Poniewozik interpreted his apology.

    2. No. Everybody can complain about whatever but the question is to know those who are Islamophobes from those who are upset for forgeting 9/11.

    3. No they didn’t. Publishing a good report about Ramadan/Eid Celebrations is a good thing but it doesn’t mean to delay 9/11.

    4. Media coverage is charged by the political atmosphere and the Islamophobia that could be noticed especially that that the 9th anniversary became more politicalized in my opinon.

  • http://francisbeckwith.com Francis Beckwith

    “Islamophobes”

    This is how arguments are now conducted in America. Instead of actually dealing with the substance of a case–which is really difficult and may hurt your brain–you come up with a one-liner, preferably one word, that can instantly both marginalize and diminish the stature of those with whom you disagree. That tactic–employing a one-word epithet as a substitute for actual dialogue–is the greatest threat to liberal democracy, since it is neither liberal nor democratic.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Poniewozik gains his power by convincing his readership base that those who say anything ill of Islam are a bunch of neo-McCarthies who will start a new Salem Witch trial, and hang multiple people for the crime of practicing Islam when they come to office.

    It is bad enough that our public schools have been interpreting McCarthyism through the odd eyes of Arthur Miller for decades, now anyone who has concerns about the fact that a Muslim scholar connected with Harvard has tried to defend the death penalty for apostasy, or that an Imam in Australia called for the beheading of a Dutch politician, is some sort of insane, right-wing hate monger?

  • John Pack Lambert

    The paper handled the 9/11 anniversary horribly.

    To begin with, when did coverage of an annual religious event become front page news? This is inherently a fluff story about members of a religion getting together and celebrating something.

    it is not front page news material. It is not anti-Islamic to say it is not.

    The question is not is it bad to treat Muslims as human, but do jews, Mormons, Hindus or Buddhists, let alone Catholics ever get front page treatment of members of their religion celebrating a holiday they do every year?

    The media has been giving us watered down, feel good, respect the “moderate” Muslims treatments for years. Yet Hamas is still killing, Al-Queda is still killing, killings have escalated in Pakistan, converts to Christianity die on a semi-regular basis in Ethiopia, and the US government fails to treat honor killings as a real threat. About the only time someone was ever convicted of such was due to a wire tap placed to catch terrorist behavior and that was 20 years ago. If the wire tap had not been in place claims of self-defense against a crazed daughter, no matter how out of line with reality they would have been, would have won.

    The US justice system is built on the presumption that both parents would not conspire to kill a teenaged child. If they do, they have a very large chance of claiming it was not a murder, and the justice system has failed to investigate.

    What is worse is the fear of stoking “Islamophobia” has lead to the media avoiding the issue of honor killings. The media has tried to turn the whole Rifqa Bary case into one of over-bearing Christian groups, on the rare occasion when they have not just supressed it entirely.

    The media has also failed to adequately cover the various accusations of religious bias against a public school principal in Dearborn, including the claim that in school he told a student who had converted to Christianity that he was a disgrace to his family.

    Dearborn is quiet possibly the closest thing to a majority Muslim city in the US. This is distinct from Muslim towns. Even in Dearborn Muslims are not yet in the majority, but in parts of the city they are. The rhetoric of affirmative action may in the end protect the discriminatory principal.

  • John Pack Lambert

    the editor is inconsistent. He did say that people say the lauding of Ramadan as offensive. Depending on how much they lauded it this may not be as outrageous as people claim.

    However, since we just have his conflicting, second hand reports about the emails, I think it is hard to say there is any evidence at all.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Laurasaurus,
    Can you imagine if on Dec. 7, 2010 a paper instead of mentioning D-day ran an article, on the front page, glorifying Shinto.

    Oh wait, I can not imagine a paper anywhere in the US running a front page article about Shinto period. That is one of my reasons why such puff pieces are so stupid.

    Also I am tired of the constant talk of how Americans treat hijab wearers so poorly. I have on multiple occasions as a college student tried to strike up the barest minimum of friendly conversations with wearers of hijab and have found them to be among the most stand-offish and cold people to deal with.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Evanston2,
    I think your point explains why NPR has had to significantly increase both the amont of the year dedicated to fund-raising drives and the length and frequency of “sponsor announcements”.

    How dare we, the unwashed ignorant masses, complain to our betters and dare suggest that people hundreds of people are killed every week by militants acting in the name of Islam.

  • Evanston2

    John, Thank you for reading my comment. If NPR can fund itself with sponsorships and donations, that’s fine. But we know that’s not true — that at gunpoint (and that’s the ultimate power behind taxes, isn’t it?) folks like Mr. Garfield can shake us down and then feel superior. Nonetheless, I remain amazed by his “isn’t that kind of their problem?” comment. Mr. Garfield doesn’t even bother to acknowledge in even the slightest way that there may be a legitate reason to complain. Instead, it is “their problem.” Just try to stop taxpayer funding of NPR or PBS (follow the money trail). You’ll first hear that taxpayer money is negligible, but somehow if it’s eliminated that Big Bird or Elmo will die. My overall point is that media double standards toward their own institutions (like NPR) lead to double standards toward religion (like Islam). At least the editor in Maine “Get’s it” — that readership and community perceptions matter to his paper. I even credit media outlets for being smart when they avoid religion altogether…coverage can result in more readership lost than gained. That’s fine, there are other sources for information on various religions. It’s odd when Mr. Garfield assumes that page 1 coverage of Ramadan is OK — after all, how many media outlets gave page 1 type coverage to Ramadan? Shouldn’t the onus be on the Garfields of this world to justify this editorial decision? Instead, when the editor from Maine entertains the fact that this may have been a poor decision (particularly in view of the timing), that is when the outrage ensues from his peers. It seems he violated the ultimate precept of the journalistic faith: that “Freedom of the Press” equals the ability to say “screw you” to the public’s inferior sensibilities. Well, the next journalistic faith meeting is at your local unemployment line. And this GetReligion reader said “Amen.”


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