From my growing guilt file, one story keeps popping up. The Portland Press Herald in Maine ran a story on September 11 about a local observance of the end of Ramadan. The story ran on the top of the front page, I believe, and had a large photo with it. So what's the problem? Well, readers didn't love the paper that day. They felt the paper should have given more prominence to the anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks and less prominence to the Ramadan celebration. Apparently there was little or no coverage to the anniversary of the terrorist attack. The editor's customers wrote him many letters. He responded:
Our coverage of the conclusion of the local Ramadan observance was excellent and we are proud of it. We did not adequately cover 9/11 on the 9/11 anniversary, which also should have been front-page news, in my opinion. Please see this week's column for additional commentary on this topic.
Well, readers took the apology pretty well. But other media figures flipped out.
Time Magazine columnist James Poniewozik interpreted the apology to mean this:
Paper to Readers: Sorry for Portraying Muslims as Human
That's certainly not how I took the editor's apology to his customers, but Poniewozik's sentiment was widely shared in the media. Many felt that no apology was necessary. Which brings us to an NPR "On the Media" segment from this week. You can listen to the segment or read the transcript. It begins with host Bob Garfield explaining that readers were upset that a Muslim holiday pushed the 9/11 remembrances off the front page and that the editor thought things should have been handled better. He quotes Poniewozik and brings on the Press Herald editor Richard Connor.
It's an extremely contentious interview, although it begins fairly calmly:
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so what was the matter with the story that you ran, the original story?
RICHARD CONNOR: Nothing. There was nothing wrong with our coverage of the local observance of the conclusion of Ramadan. We're proud of the way we covered it. We'll cover it again next year and next year and the next year.
We did not cover the 9/11 anniversary on the 9/11 date the way that we should have. We had a lot of coverage planned for 9/12, the day after. So if you read the apology closely, in my opinion, you'll see that I supported the decision to cover Ramadan. What I questioned is how we could have essentially omitted coverage of 9/11 on the same day.
I think that without doubt some of the people who complained about the lack of 9/11 coverage were really couching anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic attitudes, but I think they were hiding behind that.
BOB GARFIELD: And you apologized to them. "Many saw Saturday's front-page story and photo regarding the local observance of the end of Ramadan as offensive," and the remainder of your 700-word mea culpa is an apology for, yes, the oversight of not covering the 9/11 anniversary but somehow treading on their sensibilities. And I'm having trouble with the idea of you apologizing for covering the end of Ramadan.
RICHARD CONNOR: I think you're misreading it. We will cover Ramadan locally, and the observance of it from, you know, now to whenever. The apology is for not giving the play to 9/11 that many of our readers felt it should have. The two are disconnected.
BOB GARFIELD: I understand, but let me ask you this, please. What would you say was the preponderance of the attitudes expressed in these angry emails?
RICHARD CONNOR: The preponderance of emails that I received were from people who said, how could you have missed the 9/11 coverage on 9/11? What motivated them to write that, I don't know.
BOB GARFIELD: You remarked about treading on the sensibilities of your readers. If their sensibilities were trod upon by your covering the observance of the end of Ramadan, isn't that kind of their problem?
RICHARD CONNOR: They weren't. If you want to stick to that, you can. The emails that I received were predominantly directed at the omission of more coverage of 9/11.
Garfield is convinced that Connor was apologizing for covering Ramadan and Connor says he was apologizing for failing to properly cover the 9/11 anniversary. After a few rounds of this, it ends with the editor simply getting off the phone.
Now, I think it's certainly true that the editor did not compose the best apology. In fact, he clarified his own apology after getting hammered on it. I find it surprising that the media doesn't understand reader concern with the failure to cover 9/11 on September 11 in an edition that prominently features a Ramadan celebration.
And yet this whole thing sort of reminds me of those fights you have with family members where you're fighting about dinner but really you're fighting about something much more difficult to deal with -- hurt feelings or communication failures or resentment or something like that.
Readers are probably a bit sick of the mainstream media approach to covering Islam. I think they're probably ready -- many years after they first woke up to the threat of Muslim extremists -- for some more substantive coverage of what in this religion inspires such a dramatically different understanding of rights, freedom, honor and virtue. And I think many journalists are really convinced that America has an Islamophobia problem and they think that this editor was a traitor to the cause. Where some readers probably would like more coverage of the underlying issues, sometimes the response of some journalists seems to be "If we write one more story accusing Americans of Islamophobia while asserting that Islam inspires nothing but peace, we'll have world peace."
So what do you think? Was the editor actually apologizing for presenting Muslims as humans? Were readers wrong to complain? Did the paper handle the 9/11 anniversary well? And what do you think about the media response to the kerfuffle?
We covered some of the many religion news stories about concerns Muslims had about the likely coincidence of the end of Ramadan with the 9/11 anniversary. It's interesting that it ended up being a religion news story that led to conflict.