Where's the grass-roots reporting?

A front-page story in Sunday's New York Times featured this main headline and subhead:

Behind an Anti-Shariah Push

Orchestrating a Seemingly Grass-Roots Campaign

The 2,800-word report on "The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement" carried a Nashville dateline, but Rick Bragg could have provided more actual details from the Volunteer State from the comfort of his hotel room. 

The top of the story:

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee’s latest woes include high unemployment, continuing foreclosures and a battle over collective-bargaining rights for teachers. But when a Republican representative took the Statehouse floor during a recent hearing, he warned of a new threat to his constituents’ way of life: Islamic law.

The representative, a former fighter pilot named Rick Womick, said he had been studying the Koran. He declared that Shariah, the Islamic code that guides Muslim beliefs and actions, is not just an expression of faith but a political and legal system that seeks world domination. “Folks,” Mr. Womick, 53, said with a sudden pause, “this is not what I call ‘Do unto others what you’d have them do unto you.’ ”

Similar warnings are being issued across the country as Republican presidential candidates, elected officials and activists mobilize against what they describe as the menace of Islamic law in the United States.

Now, right off the bat, the Times seems intent on making Womick sound like a complete idiot. With his state facing real economic and educational concerns, he's wasting time voicing concerns about Shariah. Amazing.

What does Womick have to say about his lack of concern for the truly important issues of the day? Well, that's a potentially good question. But the above opening section of the story represents the entirety of Womick's cameo appearance (playing the role of modern-day moron).

Good news for Womick, though: He's not the main villain in this story. That, um, honor belongs to someone else. To wit:

A confluence of factors has fueled the anti-Shariah movement, most notably the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York, concerns about homegrown terrorism and the rise of the Tea Party. But the campaign’s air of grass-roots spontaneity, which has been carefully promoted by advocates, shrouds its more deliberate origins.

In fact, it is the product of an orchestrated drive that began five years ago in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the office of a little-known lawyer, David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam. Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, Mr. Yerushalmi has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.

Working with a cadre of conservative public-policy institutes and former military and intelligence officials, Mr. Yerushalmi has written privately financed reports, filed lawsuits against the government and drafted the model legislation that recently swept through the country — all with the effect of casting Shariah as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the cold war.

Notice anything missing from the above summary of this report?

It could be that it's entirely accurate and the facts are 100 percent correct. From a journalistic perspective, though, my problem is the lack of attribution. Actually, that's my major problem with the entire story: So much is reported as fact without — in my view — adequate sourcing and attribution.

Keep reading, and the Times uses a blanket approach and broad statements to tie Yerushalmi to the laws that have passed in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arizona, but there's no specific evidence presented of his involvement in those states. No state officials who supported anti-Shariah measures are asked:

* Have you ever heard of David Yerushalmi or talked to him?

* Are you aware that he has made controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam? By supporting the anti-Shariah measure in your state, did you, in fact, endorse such statements?

* Did the measure in your state result from grass-roots concerns or an orchestrated effort?

The story does manage to make a sweeping Norway reference:

The more tangible effect of the movement, opponents say, is the spread of an alarmist message about Islam — the same kind of rhetoric that appears to have influenced Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect in the deadly dual attacks in Norway on July 22. The anti-Shariah campaign, they say, appears to be an end in itself, aimed at keeping Muslims on the margins of American life.

This is one of those stories where you wonder if a piece about apples and oranges has been combined into a really weird-tasting fruit concoction. Is it a story about one crazy man's influence? Or is it a story about whether anti-Shariah state laws are good or bad? Or is it both? If it is both, is it really possible for a single story to tackle both questions in a satisfactory way?

Maybe I'm being overly critical.

Read the full story and weigh in. If you decide to comment, remember that GetReligion is a journalism site and not a place for advocates on either side to argue the issues. In other words, let's stay focused on the media coverage questions. Please.

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