By Mollie Ziegler Hemingway
“Is America Islamophobic?” the cover of Time asks. This Week host Christiane Amanpour began a discussion of Park 51, the planned Islamic center near ground zero, by suggesting opponents didn’t understand its location before interviewing two supporters and no opponents. And CNN ran a photo of people protesting the proposed center next to a story headlined “Brief history of intolerance in America.” Subtle.
Polls show that as many as two-thirds of Americans have concerns about the proposed Islamic center. Park 51 defenders, while less numerous, are just as passionate. But some in the media are ramping up the heated rhetoric rather than providing the nuanced and factual reporting that might provide a basis for civil discussion.
The media frequently frame the debate unfairly. Opposition to the mosque isn’t the same as asking the government to intervene, despite frequent media confusion. Polls show most Americans affirm the First Amendment rights of Park 51 developers even as they have concerns. The debate, as Crain’s New York noted, is “whether building the Islamic center is ‘a right’ or ‘the right thing to do.'” President Barack Obama’s position was more nuanced than the media reported, too. His remarks emphasized the First Amendment protections afforded to all Americans. But after a few hours of news stories claiming he had “forcefully endorsed” the mosque, the administration pointed out he hadn’t actually discussed the wisdom of it. By failing to notice the nuance on both sides, the media force a binary division that makes Americans seem farther apart on the issue than they are. One notable exception was Newsweek’s look at two 9/11 mothers with differing views having a friendly conversation despite their differences.
Because of mischaracterizations, media have misfired in subsequent reports. They allege hypocrisy by pointing out that Muslims worship in the Pentagon without complaint and that there are other mosques near ground zero. Yahoo! attempted to argue that the location is only an issue because conservative bloggers hyped it. In fact, a friendly New York Times story from 2009 used the phrase “ground zero” eight times in the copy, captions and headline.
If reporters paid attention to the polls showing that Americans view Park 51 as a special issue, they wouldn’t be confused as to why the vast majority support military chaplaincy programs and don’t protest other Manhattan mosques. And they’d probably figure out that it’s precisely the nature of the project — a new $100 million center just two blocks from ground zero — that makes them uncomfortable.
Time, which has accused readers of bigotry for weeks, now alleges that people who oppose the mosque suffer from Islamophobia — an irrational fear of Islam. The magazine acknowledges it lacks evidence but notes 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. The belief could be based on a phobia or from reading news about violence against nonbelievers in the name of Islam. Either way, calling most Americans bigots is not helpful.
For all the words spilled about Park 51 opposition the media have shown surprising incuriosity about the project itself. Americans clearly desire additional facts but reporters have favored platitudes about bridge building over new information. Journalists insist Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is moderate but have barely talked to him and know little of his work. There’s no information about who will fund the center; whose money, if anyone’s, won’t be accepted; what will be taught there and how it will be viewed by various Muslim groups.
Media outlets have begun to show the diversity of Muslim views on Park 51. The New York Times asked Muslims for their opinion and got a variety of answers. The Washington Post featured a Muslim opponent of the project whose mother perished on 9/11. But Muslims also have diverse interpretations of Islamic doctrines. It’s time to explore the theological differences as well as political differences. There’s no news sense in portraying Muslims as monolithic.
The vast majority of Americans are concerned about the construction of an Islamic center near the site of America’s worst terrorist attack, committed in the name of Islam. Rather than lecturing opponents, reporters should instead use the controversy as the perfect hook to enable a healthy airing of questions and concerns about Islam that have gone undiscussed for too long.
Mollie Ziegler Hemingway is a writer in Washington. She contributes to GetReligion.org, a site devoted to improving media coverage of religious news.