An Okie asks: Is RNS the new CAIR?

On a recent post on its Facebook page, Religion News Service asked:

See if you can spot the garb that scared Juan Williams. http://ow.ly/2XUJB

The link took RNS’ Facebook followers to a site making light of Williams and “other ignorant” people with an “irrational fear of Muslims.” Funny stuff. Unless, of course, you thought RNS was serious about its motto: “The only secular news and photo service devoted to unbiased coverage of religion and ethics — exclusively.”

An unbiased news service would not take sides on Williams’ remarks, and in my opinion, would not give readers reason to question its allegiances with an offhand post — if that’s what it was — like the one above.

I bring up the above post because I am about to review what I believe is an absolutely atrocious RNS story on a recent anti-Sharia law passed by Oklahoma voters. Before I do so, I should point out that I appreciate all the important, insightful work that RNS does. But the story I am about to review crashes and burns in an extraordinary way.

The story follows up on a vote that I discussed in my recent Islamophobia vs. bad journalism post. If you haven’t read that post, it provides helpful background on this topic. (In breaking news, a federal judge in Oklahoma City today issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state constitutional amendment.)

Here’s the top of RNS’ story on Oklahoma’s vote:

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Sarah Albahadily will wear her headscarf to a Brad Paisley concert and her cowboy boots to mosque. There are two things she says she never misses: Friday prayers and University of Oklahoma football games.

But after seven in 10 Oklahoma voters on Tuesday (Nov. 2) approved State Question 755, a constitutional amendment that prohibits courts from using Islamic law, known as Shariah, Albahadily suddenly feels a little less at home in the Sooner State.

“It’s disheartening. Even though it was expected, you still feel the blow,” said Albahadily, 27, as she drove to the Mercy School, a K-12 Islamic school in Oklahoma City where she teaches science.

So far, so good.

Sarah Albahadily and I both like Brad Paisley and the Oklahoma Sooners (although I’m not sure what happened to them in College Station, Texas, the other night), but I digress.

In all seriousness, I like the lede. It makes me want to read the rest of the story. In an unbiased news account, I expect that I’ll hear from supporters and opponents of the law and gain a better understanding of the reasons behind the measure.

Nope. This is not an unbiased news story. This is a one-sided hit piece on the state of Oklahoma.

On the same Election Day last Tuesday, 81 percent of Oklahoma voters rejected a mammoth education spending proposal. I can imagine that if RNS reported on education issues, it would have quoted only teachers who voted with the 19 percent and couched the story entirely in terms of anti-education Oklahomans showing their fervent hatred of teachers. Somehow, I think the voting was a bit — read: a few billion dollars — more complicated than that. The same is true of the Islamic law question.

From the RNS piece:

In many ways, State Question 755 will likely have little impact either in Oklahoma or elsewhere — Muslims quickly point out they never lobbied for Shariah law, and many wouldn’t support its use anyway.

What really worries Muslims is the anti-Muslim fervor that fueled it. It’s the same sentiment behind the aborted Quran bonfire in Florida and the opposition to an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. The bottom line: Muslims increasingly feel unwelcome, unwanted and viewed by their neighbors as un-American. And if that sentiment can be legislated in one state, they say, it could be legislated in another.

Anti-Muslim fervor fueled the Oklahoma vote? OK, we’ll have to take RNS’ word for it because the news service provides no evidence to back up that claim. Nor is there any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to tie the Oklahoma vote to the sentiment behind the aborted Quran burning.

From my earlier post, you’ll recall this from CNN’s pre-election coverage of the Oklahoma vote:

The question might seem a befuddling one for a ballot in the heartland, but it stems from a New Jersey legal case in which a Muslim woman went to a family court asking for a restraining order against her spouse claiming he had raped her repeatedly. The judge ruled against her, saying that her husband was abiding by his Muslim beliefs regarding spousal duties. The decision was later overruled by an appellate court, but the case sparked a firestorm.

RNS fails to mention that case or reason — whether one agrees with it or not — for proposing the Oklahoma law. In fact, RNS quotes no one who supported the law. RNS quotes no evangelicals who voted yes to see if they did so because of anti-Muslim hatred. RNS does not even quote the lawmaker who pushed the state question, instead providing this background:

The referendum was primarily authored by Republican state Rep. Rex Duncan, and sailed through the state’s legislature. In 2007, Duncan made headlines when he refused a copy of a Quran given to lawmakers by the Governor’s Ethnic American Advisory Council. On Tuesday, he won a bid for a county district attorney position.

In other words, Duncan is an anti-Muslim jerk who doesn’t deserve a voice in an unbiased national wire service story.

There’s more:

Muslims say the referendum worsened anti-Muslim prejudice that was already enflamed by the Ground Zero controversy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and frequent visits from Islamophobic speakers like Brigitte Gabriel, hosted by local churches and conservative organizations.

“It’s really brought the Muslim-haters out,” said Allison Moore, a Muslim activist in Tulsa.

Where did Brigitte Gabriel speak? Which specific churches and organizations hosted her? As a matter of fact, who the heck is she? What did she say? I’m assuming that RNS has a policy against letting “Islamophobic speakers” respond to criticism because, again, there’s no input from her.

Pardon my sarcasm, but at this point, RNS’ unbiased coverage reads a whole lot more like a press release from CAIR. We have to ask, at the very least: Where is the other side of the story? Where are the other voices? If there are voices of prejudice, please quote them. If there are voices that favored the bill for reasons other than outright prejudice, quote them. Please.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Gregory

    Everyone points out that SQ 755 forbids Oklahoma courts from considering Sharia law, but no one seems to look up the Constitutional Amendment. Any first reading of it should bring up lots of questions. It appears to forbid our (I live in Oklahoma) courts from considering our treaty obligations, because it forbids considering any international law. But “International Law” is first and foremost the law of treaties. Does it forbid our courts from considering Canon Law? Can an Oklahoma court recognize that a Catholic priest has duties regarding the seal of the confessional?

    SQ 755 has many flaws, and its impact is far beyond Sharia Law. There should be a weeks worth of material for feature articles showing how bad the amendment is.

    Before voting, I went and dug up the amendment, rather than depending upon the Secretary of State’s wording on the ballot. Realizing that it forbid us from considering our treaty obligations, I voted against it.

  • Jerry

    Bobby, I agree with you but for different reasons.

    First, I do believe that most of those who voted on that law have no idea what Sharia law is really all about because all they know are sensationalistic news reports such as that one you cited. So the story would have been stronger if those in favor of that law had been asked “What is Sharia law?” “How is it applied?” What is the role of Sharia law in Islamic banking practices? (for example). Their answers would, I believe, have proven my point.

    Second, in some areas such as this, a news story should help educate as well as report facts. I think it’s quite understandable that many are ignorant because this is a large, complex topic. I spent probably a year off and on reading up on it including Khaled Abou El Fadl’s book “Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women” and reading about the role of ijtihad,

    a technical term of Islamic law that describes the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation of the legal sources, the Qur’an and the Sunnah…

    Generally, a Mujtahid is an educated Muslim who makes up his own ruling on the permissibility of an Islamic law but only for himself, by rejecting the authority of the Ulema[Muslim scholars].

    What I found parallels the idea that the Devil can quote Scripture for his own ends. Evil people can quote the Quran and Sunnah for evil ends.

    And that leads to why those in favor of the law were right in a sense. They want to make sure that evil does not take root. But I believe the means they chose were out of ignorance so they used a sledgehammer when a hammer would have been better. The “hammer” in this case is established precedent that certain actions are outside the American zeitgeist. Other religious groups, such as Mormons, were subject to that idea. And if there are holes in the law that allowed practices that the community abhors, specific laws could be passed about those practices. So I think that would have been clear if they story had allowed those in favor to speak their minds.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Bobby:

    The RNS piece is not a new story about the passing of SQ 755.

    And it’s not a hit job.

    It’s a second day reaction story, which ran on Nov. 4, about how Muslims in Oklahoma are responding to that law’s passage. The story is summed up in this line from the nut graph: “Muslims increasingly feel unwelcome, unwanted and viewed by their neighbors as un-American.”

    Don’t blame RNS if Muslims in Oklahoma aren’t feeling a lot of love from their fellow Sooners these days.

    RNS ran a story pre-election story about SQ 755 on the October 14, which quoted both sides. In fact, it quotes Rex Duncan at the top and bottom of the story.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Bob,

    I appreciate you sharing the link to the first story. I am glad to see that RNS did that.

    But the previous story does not excuse RNS from publishing an unbiased follow-up three weeks later. The first story went out of its way to reflect all sides. The second one did not.

    And that’s a problem from a journalistic perspective.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    The first story went out of its way to reflect all sides. The second one did not.

    That’s because the first story was an overview of SQ 755– and the second story was a tightly focused reaction story on how Muslims in OK are reacting to the passage of SQ755.

    They are different kinds of news stories.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    So, Bob, certain news stories don’t need to be fair and tell the whole story? Certain news stories can be tightly focused so as to present only one side of the story?

    OK, I think I understand now.

  • Chris

    This story seems to follow a narrative pattern (almost a meme) that is very seductive, because it is so deeply engrained in American culture. The narrative describes a small, honorable minority that is unjustly treated by the uneducated, often cruel, “x”ist majority. Often (usually?) the narrative is true, but it would be more convincing if it was told with more objectivity (which means both sides having a voice). The oppressor’s voice may do more to convince the reader of the truth of the narrative than that of the oppressed.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    The oppressor’s voice may do more to convince the reader of the truth of the narrative than that of the oppressed.

    Exactly. Do some real reporting. Provide some evidence of the “anti-Muslim fervor.”

  • Jerry

    So, Bob, certain news stories don’t need to be fair and tell the whole story? Certain news stories can be tightly focused so as to present only one side of the story?

    If every story needs to tell everyone’s side, then how about WWII stories presenting the Nazi side (with a nod to Godwin)? So would you extend that principle to the utter extreme or draw a line somewhere else? And if not to the utter extreme, how do you decide where to draw the line?

    And, for what it’s worth, I had not realized the perspective Bob Smietana outlined before I made my post. But I think my point is still valid with an amendation that what I mentioned needed to be part of one of the stories about this issue.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Jerry, every story does not need to tell everyone’s side. But every story needs to rely on facts, not assertions. This story asserts that anti-Muslim fervor prompted this law. Where is the proof? Where are the quotes from the law’s supporters that back up this claim?

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Actually, the story reports that Muslims in Oklahoma believe that anti-Muslim fervor prompted this law, and that the message the law sends is that they are not welcome in Oklahoma.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Again, Bob, not to sound like a broken record, but the point is that 695,568 Oklahomans voted for this constitutional amendment. RNS quotes exactly zero of them on why.

    Were Oklahoma voters motivated by anti-Muslim fervor? RNS quotes one Muslim woman, one Muslim activist and one imam as evidence to state categorically that they were.

    Sorry, but that’s, at best, squishy evidence.

  • Chris

    To expand on Bobby’s last (#12), how did the reporter select the 3 persons quoted in the article, especially the one most extensively quoted? Who is she? The selection of the quotes supports the premise that Oklahoma Muslims feel that anti-Muslim fervor drove this constitutional amendment, but 3 out of 30,000+ is a very small number, and the evidence of hatred consists of unquantified generalizations.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Hate to sound like a broken record, but please, read the nut graph on the RNS story.

    It’s not a story about the vote on the Shariah amendment.

    It’s a story about how Muslims– a small minority faith-feel about the way that almost 700,000 of the fellow citizens voted on this anti-Shariah law.

    That’s legitimate story.

    It’s not RNS’s fault that the story makes Oklahoma look bad.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Bob, here is the nut graf:

    What really worries Muslims is the anti-Muslim fervor that fueled it. It’s the same sentiment behind the aborted Quran bonfire in Florida and the opposition to an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. The bottom line: Muslims increasingly feel unwelcome, unwanted and viewed by their neighbors as un-American. And if that sentiment can be legislated in one state, they say, it could be legislated in another.

    Again, there’s no evidence to prove the claim that anti-Muslim fervor fueled the law. Again, there’s no evidence that the same sentiment was at play that occurred with the aborted Quran bonfire or the Ground Zero center.

    As I said in the original post, I have no problem with the angle of a small religious group feeling unwanted, unwelcome, etc. In fact, I think it’s a potentially great story. But only if the full story is told and a wider range of voices included.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Hi Bobby

    Has the paper in Oklahoma City reported on why people voted for the amendment?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    If they have, I haven’t seen it. All I’ve seen are the typical news accounts with groups such as CAIR and the ACLU on one side and conservative organizations on the other. But I haven’t seen any “real people” quoted.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BOB:

    If more newspapers had clearly reported the details of what the Nazis said and argued, more people might have been stunned and acted earlier.

    The first RNS piece was solid. The second one was half a story. In that sense, it did not live up to the very high standards that are the norm for RNS, one of our most important journalism forces on this beat.

  • will47

    The CNN story was actually pretty awful, too. The case to which the pro-measure ad apparently refers is here. The case doesn’t mention Sharia law at all. Rather, the trial judge (who was overturned on appeal in the linked case) held that as a factual matter, the husband could not have had the intent to commit rape. This was not a holding that sharia law actually governed the marriage. Personally, I find these sorts of “cultural defenses” to be objectionable. I doubt, however, that they would be reached by the newly passed (and I guess recently enjoined) measure, because the question was one of fact rather than law. In any event, CNN should not have simply repeated the proponents’ characterization of the case.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    One undercovered aspect of the Oklahoma law is the unintended effects it might have in other areas, as Gregory notes. Would it ban arbitration clauses like this one? http://religionclause.blogspot.com/2010/10/court-upholds-biblically-based.html

    At least some legal scholars are not impressed with the law on those grounds: http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2010/11/03/law-professor-ban-on-sharia-law-a-mess/

  • James

    Bob,

    I’d suggest that stories which are largely about “how a certain group feels,” or group perceptions, need to be treated with great care. There are some sentiments (not necessarily this one) which, if to profoundly felt, can have detrimental effects on some individuals – e.g., Afro Americans in ghettos who have the perception that employment for them is impossible because of racism may be prevented from seeking opportunities because of such sentiments. It’s true that one “can’t be held responsible for how everyone and anyone reacts” – but nonethless, we must be aware of how certain stories may augment perceptions which may or may not be accurate or healthy.

    In particular, stories with lots of short, unsubstantiated soundbytes are to be scrutinized. Imagine, e.g., a story which highlights the feelings of persecution amongst some conservative Christians by gay lobbying groups. I think you could see how such a story would be rather unhelpful.

    If the story is able in some manner to go into depth – like an interview, asking the interlocutor how he or she responds to certain facts and events – what he or she finds the main problems to be – how such things can be avoided, etc., etc., we at least don’t have a story full of a persecuted minority group being quoted saying “well, I just tell them we have to stand firm …” “It’s disheartening …” “It really brought the [some group] haters out.”

    I have no doubt that there is some presence of unhelpful sentiment toward Muslim people in Oklahoma. But I would also like to spare Muslims living in Oklahoma from the perception that anti-Muslim sentiment in Oklahoma is so extreme that there are a lot of Muslim “haters” lurking about. Surely any liberally-minded author can understand how such a perception undermines the social understandings and relations between subcultures, diminishes the lives of Muslim Oklahomans, and increases group tensions – with Muslim Oklahomans being the most affected (while white “liberal” politicians profit).

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    TERRY:

    I didn’t make the Nazi argument, so you’re barking up the wrong tree.

    Judge the RNS piece for what it was– a second day, reaction story–on how Muslims in Oklahoma felt about the vote.

    It’s not a first day account of here is how people voted and why. It’s a reaction story, from a specific set of people. That context is important. Looking at the two RNS piece together matters.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Bobby:

    If they have, I haven’t seen it. All I’ve seen are the typical news accounts with groups such as CAIR and the ACLU on one side and conservative organizations on the other. But I haven’t seen any “real people” quoted.

    So where’s the criticism of the local media for missing a major story. Looks like RNS has done better coverage than the local media.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    It’s not a first day account of here is how people voted and why. It’s a reaction story, from a specific set of people. That context is important. Looking at the two RNS piece together matters.

    Bob, the second-day story argument is weak. It’d be weak if you were talking about a daily newspaper that people read every day. But it’s even weaker when talking about a wire service story where the odds are high that many (most) readers did not see the first story. The follow-up story (three weeks after the first story) must stand on its own. Simple as that.

    So where’s the criticism of the local media for missing a major story. Looks like RNS has done better coverage than the local media.

    No, RNS did a biased, one-sided story. That’s the whole point that you choose to ignore. The local media coverage has been mediocre, but it has not been biased.

  • Jerry

    I’m happy to read this debate because it reminds me not to take the GR reviews at face value. The GR bloggers can be wrong and in this case I’m on Bob’s side of the debate. I hope other reporters challenge a GR blog posting when they feel that the critique is in error.

  • http://religionnews.com Daniel

    Should it be said that the very same leap from discrete deed (voting for SQ 755) to general assertion (anti-Muslim prejudice) that you deplore in the RNS article, is the very same leap (bemoaned RNS article and FB post = RNS bias) you deplore in your post?

    Yes, it probably should.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Hey Bobby:

    Looks like we’re going to have to agree to disagree here.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Bobby:

    You’re in Oklahoma– what do you think drove support for SQ755?

    Bob S

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Dan, I suppose that’s a fair statement, and I will try harder to avoid blanket generalizations.

    I would point out that I’m paid to give my opinion and don’t claim to be unbiased in what I write for GR. Hopefully, my bias is toward the best principles of responsible journalism.

    In any case, you are welcome and encouraged to comment if you disagree.

    Bob, agreed. Until the next time …

  • http://religionnews.com Daniel

    Whoops. My comment should read:

    Should it be said that the very same leap from discrete deed (voting for SQ 755) to general assertion (anti-Muslim prejudice) that you deplore in the RNS article, is the very same leap (bemoaned RNS article and FB post = RNS bias) you make in your post?

    Yes, it probably should.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    You’re in Oklahoma— what do you think drove support for SQ755?

    Bob, I guess we’re not done yet after all. :-)

    The short answer is, I don’t know. I didn’t conduct any exit polls. I haven’t interviewed any voters, pro or con. Actually, I haven’t even really discussed this issue with anyone except my wife (which says something about the true level of issue this was among the rank-and-file masses).

    The Islamic law measure was one of about a dozen legalese-style state questions on the ballot, along with lengthy lists of local, state and federal offices. Folks got to the ballot box, read a state question that asked if they wanted to prevent judges from using Islamic or international law in deciding state court cases, and most of them voted “yes.” Did a “no” vote mean that the person supported using Islamic and international law in state court cases, or did it mean that they thought it was a stupid and unnecessary constitutional amendment?

    Given the 70 percent support, did voters buy the political argument that the measure was needed to prevent cases like the one in New Jersey? Were voters fueled by anti-Muslim fervor? Were voters mainly just unfamiliar with the state question? Was there some other reason? All good questions for some reporter, I think …

    Back in the old days, when I worked for The Oklahoman, I’d stand outside the post office for a few hours and ask 25 to 30 people how they voted (or were going to vote) on a particular issue and why. It wasn’t scientific, but it gave you a much better picture than relying on the standard sound bites/narratives from activists on the left and the right.

  • Marie

    I side with James (21).

    Bob, you are correct. It is a piece about the reaction of a particular group to the vote.
    Bobby, you are correct. It is a poorly constructed piece that presents opinions as facts.
    This statement from the article is the perfect example of how the reaction angle went bad.

    What really worries Muslims is the anti-Muslim fervor that fueled it.

    It should read “What really worries some Muslims is the anti-Muslim fervor that they feel is behind the amendment.” The article would also have to substantiate the use of “some” in showing that this this the opinion of more than just three individuals. As the quote reads now it takes for granted, or rather assumes as fact, that anti-Muslim fervor was behind the amendment. The problem with this article is that it takes the perceptions and opinions of one group and imposes them as the actual motivations of another. I suggest rereading James’ comment (21) where he points out that reaction pieces are a valid form of journalism if done properly but harmful if done incorrectly as this one clearly was.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Bobby,

    That is so old-fashioned of you to think that you should interview people before making accusations of Islamophobia.

    Who taught you such retro methods of journalism?

    Mollie

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

    First off I will say the people who come on here and declare which “side” they are on in the issue really do not get the point. If we are trying to create an exchange of ideas that will lead to better coverage of religion, I think that sides are the last thing people need.

    There is a major jump that is inherent in CAIR, claimed by the ACLU, and underlies the article under review.

    It is that those who dislike Islamism hate Muslims, and that conversely those who favor Sharia law are the best friends and allies of individual Muslims. Considering that Brigitte Gabriel is one of the most focal speakers in the US in favor of the human rights of Muslim women, this assumption has major problems.

    The fact that CAIR is willing to denounce people like Zuhdi Jasser when they speak out about terrorism and support of terrorism by American Muslims is important. The fact that they refuse to openly admit that American Muslims have the basic human right of freedom of religion is also scary.

    Smietana and the RNS seem willing to paint all Muslims with one brush, assuming that 3 Muslims can speak for the 30,000 in Oklahoma.

    Currently the news media refuses to accept that three Catholics could possible speak for all Catholics, but such an assumption is even more bizarre when we are dealing with Islam, a religion that not only lacks a defined leader, but in the US exists in so many types, from Amadiyya Islam, to Jasser’s embrace of the philosophy of Mu’tazilah, to Hisham Kabbani’s sufism that still differs greatly from other Sufis.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald

    @James: “Surely any liberally-minded author can understand how such a perception undermines the social understandings and relations between subcultures, diminishes the lives of Muslim Oklahomans, and increases group tensions – with Muslim Oklahomans being the most affected (while white “liberal” politicians profit).”

    Maybe. What if it is, actually, true that there’s a lot of Muslim-haters in Oklahoma? A friend recently commented, after a firebombing attack in the middle of the night on a same-sex couple’s home, that the fact the community rallied around the men showed that hate wasn’t a local value. Fine, it’s not a universal value, but where did the firebomber *who’d also been harassing them before then) get the idea of firebombing in the first place? You see my point.

    @ Lambert: Yeah, but Brigitte Gambriel blamed the collapse of Lebanon not only on the breakdown of the confessional pact divvying up power in Lebanon, but blamed it on the generic hatred of Muslims for Christians and Christian liberties. At best, it’s unhelpful; at worst, well. Her oversimplifications aren’t helpful.

  • Harris

    Reading through letters to the editor and the short election notice and comments, I am not sure that one can easily dismiss the existence of something rather akin to “anti-Muslim” fervor. Yes, trolls being trolls and all, but the public nature of the comments is sufficient to support the finding, that why, yes, there is a community of prejudice in Oklahoma.


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