WASHINGTON POST-WATCH: Managing Editor ‘Wants More Muslim Readers, Journalists’

Washington Post Managing Editor Philip Bennett highlighted what he thinks is wrong with news coverage of Islam in a speech at the University of California-Irvine. But Mr. Bennett’s self-contradictory talk, “Covering Islam: A Challenge for American Journalism,” suggests that his own perceptions contribute to the problem.

CAMERA e-mailed a query about an account of his Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow Lecture (“Media to blame for Islamic misconception; Washington Post editor says near-absence of Muslim voice in newsrooms, poor translations contribute to lack of understanding,” Daily Pilot of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, Calif., March 3) to Mr. Bennett. He replied that “I’m not sure all those quotes are exactly right, and the emphasis of the story doesn’t match that of the speech ….” He then provided CAMERA with the text of his remarks. They’re worth analyzing because Bennett is number two in The Post’s editorial chain-of-command.

In his talk, The Post managing editor tries to address “the major currents — and major challenges — of press coverage of Islam.” He says he does so “with humility, and even some anxiety” since the subject is so broad and “excites intense passions and disputes.”

Perhaps the subject is too broad, for Mr. Bennett strays from the central issue: how the U.S. media report the threat posed by the kinds of Islamic extremism that led to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Post’s managing editor also relies on examples which, if subjected to the in-depth coverage he calls for, support conclusions contrary to those he reaches.

Some examples:

* Mr. Bennett noted that at the time of his talk, Post editors were debating whether the newspaper’s Stylebook should accept use of the word Islamist. Some editors “argued that Islamist is the best term to describe a political movement that bases itself on Islamic law …. [and] will help readers distinguish between Hamas, for example, and the Red Crescent Society.

“But there are dissenters …. [They argue] that Islamist is too broad a term to be meaningful” and includes groups that “can be extremist or moderate, pacifist or belligerent ….”

Six and a-half years after 9/11 and Washington Post editors were still debating whether to add the word “Islamist” to their style book? The term is a bit awkward and somewhat academic. It is not as meaningful, when describing al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and so on, as jihadi or jihadist.

But Post reporting rarely if ever uses, in its own voice, jihadi or jihadist, not to mention broad but nevertheless more specific terms including Islamic supremacist, Islamic imperialist or Islamo-fascist. The Post foreign desk avoids the terms terrorist and terrorism when referring to Hamas and Hezbollah in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It progressively sanitizes anti-Israeli terrorists, moving from “militant” to “fighter.” No wonder Islamist seems debatable.

* Mr. Bennett cites the example of Post coverage of Dr. Esam Omeish without acknowledging where it failed. Dr. Omeish resigned last year from a Virginia commission on immigration after he appeared in a You Tube video and, in Mr. Bennett’s words, “extolled the virtues of ‘jihad.’” (The Washington Times reported that Dr. Omeish did so while inveighing against “the Israeli war machine.”) The Post managing editor noted that the doctor, chief of general surgery at a Fairfax, Va. hospital, “is also president of the Muslim American Society, an organization accused on various Web sites of links to terrorism because of the group’s roots with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

According to Mr. Bennett, Dr. Omeish “said he was the victim of a smear campaign and partisan propaganda, to say nothing of a misunderstanding of the term ‘jihad.’” The managing editor explained that he had lunch with the surgeon. “He made me a gift of the Koran. Omeish is a highly engaging person. He has lectured about Islam to U.S. military officers at the National Defense University, and said he meets regularly with the FBI to improve the bureau’s relations with local Muslims. With a smile, he calls himself a ‘fundamentalist, in a good sense.’

“Omeish told me he thought press coverage of his resignation … was basically fair, but it was incomplete.”

Incomplete is right, as CAMERA pointed out at the time (“Washington Post-Watch: A Cover-Up in Plain Sight,” Oct. 18, 2007). The paper reported that Dr. Omeish exhorted “an Islamic political rally in 2000 to support ‘the jihad’ ….” It added that “some elected officials … interpreted the remark as a call to arms and a tacit endorsement of terrorism. But jihad is a broad term meaning ‘struggle,’ Omeish said.”

Dr. Omeish was speaking at a Dec. 22, 2000 rally, when the second Palestinian “intifada” was new and terrorists had murdered scores of Israelis. Of Palestinian Arabs, he declared, in a quote not cited by The Post, that “you have learned the jihad way is the way to liberate your land.”

Jihad also can mean the “internal struggle” for religious piety, but that’s not why Egyptian Islamic Jihad (one of the groups that morphed into al Qaeda) and Palestinian Islamic Jihad use the word as part of their names. It’s not why the Jamaiah al-Islamiyah al-Musallaha, Algeria’s bloody Armed Islamic Group, declared a jihad on French territory in 1999. It’s not why Palestinian Arabs refer to their jihad against Israel. Americans understand the Arabic and Islamic “external struggle” meaning of jihad — a worldwide battle against religious pluralism and equality — quite well. No doubt, so does Dr. Omeish, who used it in the context of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s murderous jihad.

As for the Muslim American Society, The Post reported that it is “the largest grass-roots Islamic organization in the United States and a frequent target of accusations that it is linked to terrorists. The group was founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative worldwide Islamic organization.” The Muslim Brotherhood, established in Egypt in 1928, was profoundly influenced by the anti-Western, anti-Jewish, anti-modern, and anti-secular writings of Sayyed Quttb. It is the mother ship of Sunni terrorist groups including al Qaeda, Hamas, and the killers of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The Post’s description falls far short of the vow of fairness and accuracy Mr. Bennett makes elsewhere in his talk.

* Misunderstanding the example of Post coverage of Dr. Omeish, Mr. Bennett does likewise with the New York Times’ 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Sheik Reda Shata, imam of a prominent Brooklyn mosque. Mr. Bennett points to reporter Andrea Elliott’s effort as an example of outstanding journalism, revealing “a world of surprises about the social, political and spiritual challenges faced by the imam in post-9/11 New York.”

The Post managing editor omits serious criticism of the Pulitzer award, including that published by the New York Post and New York Sun. Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum and author of Militant Islam Reaches America, (W.W. Norton & Co., 2002), said “just from the between -the-lines information Elliott provides in her articles, it is clear that the imam is no moderate but an Islamist.”

Steven Emerson, executive director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism and producer of the George Polk Award-winning1994 PBS documentary “Terrorists Among Us; Jihad in America” said Elliott “took at face value” what the imam said. And according to New York University journalism professor Robert Boynton, Elliott’s “intent was very self-consciously to humanize the world of the imam as well as balance off some of the more incendiary portraits we’ve been reading.” Perhaps including those about a connection by worshipers at the mosque to an alleged plot in 2004 to blow up the Herald Square subway station.

Mr. Bennett may have read The Times Pulitzer-winning series as among “the best journalism on this subject,” fighting “against the tide of public perception.” To uphold his commitment to fairness, accuracy, and in-depth reporting, the managing editor also should have told his University of California-Irvine audience that the series struck some knowledgeable readers as an apologia.

* The Post managing editor notes that “on Sept. 11, 2001 there were only handful of American journalists capable of writing about Islam with any fluency. An even smaller number knew anything about al Qaeda …. It’s fair to say that our knowledge of Islam’s political, spiritual and cultural dimensions was not as intimate or authoritative as the moment demanded.” This criticism is so mild as to be self-exculpating.

Perhaps the second biggest post-World War II international news story (after the deterioration and collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire), has been the rise and spread of Islamic extremism. It, like the pending Soviet implosion, generally was missed by major Western news media. Neither the news media nor the intelligence agencies the press criticized ex post facto connected the numerous dots.

These dots included the 1970s seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran; the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat; growth of Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon (including the 1983 bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks and kidnappings and in some cases murders of Westerners there throughout the ‘80s); Palestinian Islamic extremism; the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; destruction of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community headquarters in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, respectively; the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan; the rise of al Qaeda; the attack against U.S. forces in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 1996, the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; and attack against the U.S.S. Cole in 2000.

Evidence accumulated before Sept. 11, 2001 of a new, worldwide ideological threat — call it Islamism or Islamic imperialism. Its roots were examined as early as V.S. Naipul’s 1981 best-seller, Among The Believers. But the media in general unilluminatingly reported a series of isolated developments, not a dangerous, variegated movement.

* According to Mr. Bennett, “the lack of knowledge and experience in the press, combined with the trauma of the [Sept. 11, 2001] attacks and the forceful response by the Bush administration, invited oversimplification. An exotic and threatening new lexicon entered public discourse devoid of important context: jihad, madrassa, Sharia, hijab, Wahhabi …. Irreconcilable portraits of Islam — the Islam of peace and the Islam of terror — became the halves of an equation that didn’t add up.”

They still don’t, journalistically, so long as leading news outlets like The Post avoid serious reporting on other “exotic” but relevant terms. Though Mr. Bennett does not mention them, these include dhimmi (the inferior status of Christians and Jews under Islamic law) and dar al-harb and dar al-Islam (respectively, those non-Islamic parts of the world in which war to extend Islam is permitted, and those parts already under Islamic rule and therefore where wars of conquest between Muslims are prohibited). Such concepts are still to be found in mainstream, not just “puritanical” Wahhabi Muslim theology.

* Mr. Bennett mentions a 2006 ABC-Washington Post poll that showed “six out of 10 Americans confessed to lacking a basic understanding” of Islam. Six of 10 Americans may well lack a basic understanding of Judaism, Hinduism or any other minority religion — if not also of the theological foundations of their own Christian sects. Poll news is often no news, little more than filler. What makes lack of knowledge of Islam more significant at the moment is the functionally overlapping Islamist movements that threaten the generally tolerant, secular American civic culture Post readers may take for granted.

* Mr. Bennett’s assertion that “one way for Muslims to have greater influence on the mainstream news media — and on society at large — is for more to come to work in newsrooms” is a) misplaced and b) not journalistic. Later in his talk he added that “at The Post I want more Muslim readers, but also more Muslim journalists …. Journalism plays a role in transforming ‘others’ into us. This is not necessarily a happy story; it does not mean papering over conflicts or uncomfortable truths. It does mean crossing boundaries —- sometimes on a map, sometimes in your head — to engage honestly with how we are all influencing each other’s lives.”

It is not the purpose of a major daily newspaper to seek readers and journalists from particular groups. The Post should not specifically want more Muslim readers and reporters any more than it should seek more Jewish, black or homosexual readers and reporters. That’s the role of the ethnic or specialty press, and the Washington Jewish Week, Washington Afro-American, and Washington Blade exist to serve such markets.

The job of general interest dailies like The Post is to report the news of the day regardless of its religious, ethnic, gender or other minority roots. Specifically looking for reporters and readers from special interests risks embedding political correctness in coverage. To report the news comprehensively, in context, for the body politic, a major daily must transcend special interests; otherwise, coverage can be parochial if not special pleading

Mr. Bennett is correct that timely subjects and big stories are not necessarily happy ones, and that journalists must not paper over conflicts or uncomfortable truths. But the thought that Muslims are needed to better cover Islam should carry no more weight than typecasting that assigns women to report on other women, Catholics to cover Catholics, and so on. A person who does not know how to research a subject, filter his or her own biases and get past “group identity” should be working in a field other than journalism.

* The Post managing editor explains that he tries “to be guided by the facts, and to absorb different points of view. If I have a conscious bias, it leans towards a belief in stories and storytelling. It’s my job to ensure that our stories are as close to the truth as is possible, given the limitations of our medium — and of ourselves.”

Guided by facts, as close to the truth as possible — definitely. But what does “absorb different points of view” and “belief in stories and story telling” mean? Recognizing that sources have different v iewpoints — many Muslims still reportedly believe that the FBI, Mossad or both perpetrated the 9/11 attacks — is vital, in part so one can edit them out to protect the accuracy of coverage.

A “bias toward story-telling” has been a media weakness that periodically contributes to frauds like those of Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Scott Thomas Beauchamp at The New Republic. In the 1960’s and early ‘70s, partly to compete with televised news, partly to sound hip in the new counter-culture, articles became “stories” and stories became part of “an ongoing narrative” — another phrase Mr. Bennett uses. Straight-forward reporting, that is, the relevant facts in order of importance, in context, began to lose journalistic primacy. And journalists began to lose public credibility.

In a 2005 interview with the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, Mr. Bennett reportedly said that “the world has gone through colonialism and imperialism. We have seen the danger and shortcomings of those systems. If we are heading into another period of imperialism where the U.S. thinks itself as the leader of the area and its interest should prevail over all other interests of its neighbors and others, then I think the world will be in an unhappy period.”

The period the world, including American journalists, confronts is not one of that left-wing bogey-man, U.S. imperialism. Rather, it is a period of a type of Islamic imperialism that forces critical Dutch parliamentarians to live under guard, leads to bans on free speech about Islamism in Canada and Australia, provokes riots over cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed, and still has a bounty on author Salman Rushdie’s head. Not to mention suppresses woman in dozens of countries, kills U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, menaces Israel with nuclear holocaust, and still threatens to turn airliners into missiles.

In that same interview Mr. Bennett also was quoted as saying that The Post never characterizes China as a dictatorship. In fact, at the time of the interview, The Post had referred, accurately, to China’s often brutal, militarized, one-party Communist regime as a dictatorship.

The point is that qualms about identifying China as a dictatorship and hesitation over precisely identifying Islamists and jihadists, focusing on “U.S. imperialism” when Islamic imperialism is the issue sound similar. Washington Post shortcomings in covering Islam in general and Islamists in particular may not stem from lack of newsroom “diversity” but rather lack of journalistic understanding.

Comments are closed.