Who fact checks the fact checkers?

Nutrition label

Part of me is hoping we get a good sex scandal next week so we can move off of all-Park51-coverage all the time. On the other hand, now is not a bad time to be on the Godbeat, eh? We have all the excitement right now. There are great opportunities for all sorts of angles. Paul Vitello at the New York Times simply asked a bunch of different New York City Muslims how they feel about the controversy. The result was very well-executed and really fascinating. It's not heavy on religion so much as accommodation and compromise, but I actually think that's a better way to handle those very important issues. Unfortunately, the heated nature topic means we also have more condescending media coverage than most people can stomach. A couple of days ago the Associated Press put out a fact check that had me laughing in the very first paragraph:

A New York imam and his proposed mosque near ground zero are being demonized by political candidates -- mostly Republicans -- despite the fact that Islam is already very much a part of the World Trade Center neighborhood. And that Muslims pray inside the Pentagon, too, less than 80 feet from where terrorists attacked.

Just a word to the wise, folks. When composing something that you're trying to pass off as an independent judgment of "facts," lay off the non sequitirs, politicking, loaded phrases, red herrings and unsubstantiated statements. Or move them lower than the first paragraph, at least! I'm still shaking my head over the use of the term "demonized" in a so-called fact check.

Or there's this Time article by Bobby Ghosh, which attempts to help out the cause of the proposed mosque near Ground Zero by asserting that, well, "many of Park51's opponents are motivated by deep-seated Islamophobia."

In the first paragraph, this piece accuses opponents of being motivated not just by normal, everyday, irrational hatred of Islam but a special deep-seated version of Islamophobia. Yeah, isn't that a nice way to begin an article? I thought so, too. What's the evidence? Maybe the full version of the article does a better job than the abbreviated version but. Here's the "proof," as it were:

Although the American strain of Islamophobia lacks some of the traditional elements of religious persecution -- there's no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise, for instance -- there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that hate speech against Muslims and Islam is growing both more widespread and more heated. Meanwhile, a new TIME-Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers. Only 37% know a Muslim American. Overall, 61% oppose the Park51 project, while just 26% are in favor of it. Just 23% say it would be a symbol of religious tolerance, while 44% say it would be an insult to those who died on 9/11.

You have to do more than assert that Islamophobia is a big and growing problem. You have to provide support for that. We're told that we have no evidence of violence but we have "plenty of anecdotal evidence"? Really? The anecdotes aren't included in the online version. I assume they are in the print version. But if you're going to say that America has "a Muslim problem," I think you should use more than anecdotes and report the research as well as possible and put the data in context so that readers can really understand what you're alleging. Otherwise, it comes off like more of the broad-brush painting that has characterized too much of the discussion.

Let's not forget that Islamophobia, is defined as the irrational fear of Islam. Belief that Islam is more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against nonbelievers could be based on a phobia, I suppose. It could also be developed from reading a newspaper, studying a recent poll, remembering the events of recent years, or having some knowledge of the different status accorded to nonbelievers in various countries. You don't even have to be non-Muslim to note those differences. It's neither criminal nor proof of bigotry to note that religions sometimes teach different things. Those differences include what they have to say about treatment of nonbelievers.

I've been very discouraged by this debate, and not only or even primarily because I'm on the losing side of the issue. More than anything I can not stand the way people are talking to and about each other. Claire Berlinski, a writer I follow who lives in Turkey, said that people should not be discouraged or think that the discussion is unhealthy:

No, it's quite healthy, I figure. These questions about Islam--what it is, who's a moderate, whether there are moderates--have been subterranean for too long. That's unhealthy. The mosque is forcing a lot of people to subject their firm but privately-held views, whether well-founded or bigoted, to public scrutiny. That's not necessarily healthy, mind you--I too am balefully watching the nutcases come out of their hidey-holes--but it's generally a good thing. It was definitely going to happen sooner or later.

There's been a stifling veil of political correctness drawn over this subject for fear of exciting extremists--on both sides, mind you. But ordinary people sense that for what it is: flimflam and an insult to their intelligence. If the emotion generated by the mosque prompts this kind of debate, and if it happens, no coincidence, before an election, that's what democracy is about.

In our very first post about coverage of this debate back in December 2009, Mark mentioned a joke that had run on 30 Rock:

Jenna: You've got to lie to her, coddle her, protect her from the real world.

Jack: I get it. Treat her like the New York Times treats its readers.

Are some media outlets writing about bigotry (real and/or perceived) in order to avoid any meaningful coverage of Islam in general or the propriety of Cordoba House in particular? If that's the case, it's not too late to focus coverage where it can do the most good -- helping Americans have a conversation they clearly want and need to have.

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