Bacon at a mosque: media don’t get to the meat of a Florida vandalism case

Which is worse -- a machete or slabs of bacon? No, that's not one of those riddles you'd hear in, say, philosophy class or late at night in a bar. It's a question posed in stories about vandalism of a Florida mosque.

Someone took a machete to the Masjid al-Mumin building in Titusville, near the Kennedy Space Center. The vandal used the weapon to hack at lights, windows and security cameras, then scattered raw bacon around the front door. Some cameras still worked, though: Police arrested one Michael Wolfe from surveillance images.

It's just one of a rash of vandalism against mosques around the U.S. since recent jihadi attacks like the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino. The interesting thing about the Florida incident is what the stories chose to lead with -- and whether they grasped the effect of the crime.

Among the more sensationalistic was the Religion News Service, which ran a USA Today story and headlined it "Man accused of swinging machete through Florida mosque." The original headline was a milder "Man accused of vandalizing mosque, leaving bacon." But both versions don't neglect the blade, saying Wolfe "is accused of slashing his way through the mosque, shattering lights, windows and cameras with a machete."

An official from the Council on American-Islamic Relations ties the two offenses together:

"People are afraid to take their children back to the mosque ... a machete was used," said Rasha Mubarak, the advocacy group's Orlando regional coordinator.  "They know we don't consume pork. This is something that those who are Islamaphobic tend to bring up or use."

A gold star to the story for adding this background: "Eating pork — including bacon and ham — is prohibited in the Quran. The Bible's Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy also forbid it." Pretty impressive for a secular newspaper.

The article borrows heavily, of course, from coverage in Florida Today, its affiliate in east-Central Florida. That newspaper quotes Muhammad Musri, who oversees 10 mosques in the area and, it says, has often done interfaith work:

"We've been in this community for so many years. This is a great community and this act is not typical of the good people or the city," he said. "So I am hopeful. Over 40 years that we've been here, we've never seen anything like this."

Many reports on the matter quote only police and Muslim leaders. So Florida Today does well in also getting comment from the leader of a local ministerial group. He says he was "disheartened" at the incident, which he condemned as "mean-spirited."

But even though Orlando is only 40 miles from Titusville, the Orlando Sentinel kisses off the story in less than 400 words. It gives lots of numbers: Wolfe's age (35), when the crime occurred (11 p.m. Friday), estimated cost of the damage ($800) and the bail amount ($2,000).  It also says Wolfe served more than two years for burglary and grand theft.

But the Sentinel doesn't say why the bacon was placed at the mosque. And except for Musri, no religious leaders are quoted -- even though Mubarak, the local CAIR leader, is based in Orlando.

Two Arab media have been surprisingly muted. A brief, 179-worddigest in Al-Jazeera gets the bacon and machete into the lede. It also adds just a touch of background: "Consumption of pork and products made from pork is forbidden in Islam."

A workmanlike account in the Saudi-based Arab News doesn't even do that. It mentions mere "vandalism" in the lede, waiting until paragraph 3 to mention the bacon and the machete. And although it's nearly three times as long as the Al-Jazeera piece, it says nothing about why bacon would be offensive.

Both those articles are evidently based on the Florida Today coverage. But not much else is done elsewhere either, to be fair. The New York Daily News summarizes the USA Today version. RT, based in Moscow, gave it a 360-word rewrite from Florida Today. and the Toronto Sun ran a Reuters piece on it.

Reuters does deserve a separate shout-out for adding, "The use of pork in the vandalism qualifies as a hate crime because the consumption of pork is forbidden by the religion and is frequently used as a means of intimidation, according to Muslim leaders."  Reuters also does well with this context:

Anti-Muslim sentiment has swelled in the United States after a young Muslim couple inspired by Islamic State massacred 14 people on Dec. 2 in San Bernardino, California, and after comments by some Republican presidential candidates, according to Muslim leaders.

Not that reprisals are justified against Muslims who didn’t commit violence and never met those who did. But understanding the news requires context. Most coverage didn’t bother to add it.

To its credit, the Daily News adds a background sentence: "Because they are prohibited from consuming pork, pigs and other pork products are often used to offend Muslims, according to CAIR." Not quite a canonical explanation, but better than nothing.

Interestingly, most of the reports shun using "Islamophobic" unless quoting Mubarak of CAIR. An exception is Arab News, which even misspells "Islamaphobic," as did the Florida Today article on which it was based.

Huffington Post couldn't resist, though, using the loaded term twice. This despite its admission that "It wasn't immediately clear whether police were looking at the incident as a possible hate crime." Then again, the story is pretty much a cut-and-paste job, quoting seven other newspapers and TV stations -- and a previous HuffPo article. I see no evidence of original reporting.  Not unless you count them adding: "The Quran forbids Muslims from consuming pork."

But that's the way it was with nearly all of the above.  There are Muslims in New York, Toronto and Philadelphia. Surely they have thoughts and feelings about the Titusville vandalism. When you think about it, the crime was both physical and spiritual: first swinging a machete, then slinging a religiously proscribed food. Muslims would likely get intense, visceral reactions to that.

If the incident itself is worth reporting, why isn’t it worth reporting the effect of the news on the readers?



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