Mosque and state: Cut 'n' paste approach mars stories on polling controversy

What would happen if mainstream media did their own reporting? Well, for one thing, they just might avoid the kinds of gaps and gaffes marring the coverage of a controversy over a South Florida mosque.

The Islamic Center of Boca Raton has been used as a polling site for some years by the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections, but this year she changed her mind. Why? Because she says she got a lot of complaints, including threats. 

It's a more than worthwhile story, acting as a kind of microcosm for national questions of tolerance, terrorism, religious freedom and church (or mosque) and state. And it's worth more than the cut 'n' paste jobs that have been passing for, you know, showing up and/or phoning.

The story came out last Friday in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, but it wasn't till midweek that it caught on in national media. 

Then the gaffes began.

The New York Daily News ran a photo supposedly showing the Islamic Center. It was really the Assalam Center, another mosque a little more than a mile south. 

And the Washington Post yesterday led with, "Since at least the year 2010, citizens have cast their votes within the pastel green walls of the mosque." No, they haven't. The light green building opened in 2012. Before then, the members rented space at a shopping plaza.

And those are just the easiest soft spots to spot.

Aside from its error on the ICBR building, the WaPo article may not contain a single original word. It's assembled from eight sources -- including the Sun Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post and West Palm Beach-based WPTV. The newspaper also adds canned statements from two Congress members, the Florida Family Association and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. WaPo's only redeeming feature is admitting its sources.

The Christian Science Monitor similarly cobbles together four sources, although, like the Washington Post, it waited until yesterday to produce an article. The Monitor's only "original" reporting is a scene setter at the Fort Pierce mosque where Omar Mateen attended before his killing spree in Orlando.  And even that reference was borrowed from the Monitor's own story a month ago.

The Associated Press doesn't even wait for you to read its lede. "People Vote in Churches and Synagogues. Why Not a Mosque?," says its headline, which was used by ABC News and elsewhere.

AP apparently did some of its own work, but it leaves several loose ends. 

It quotes Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation: "Christians who are offended about voting at a mosque now know how it feels for an atheist or agnostic who is forced to vote at a Catholic church or a mega church." And Christian leaders replied … what? No answer.

AP also quotes Josie Lambiet, who runs the GossipExtra blog in South Florida.  He accuses former leaders of the mosque of "ties to the Islamic militant group Hamas and anti-Israel protests." Lambiet also says the U.S. government once "sanctioned" the mosque's current president, Bassem Alhalabi, alleging that he shipped a thermal imaging device to his brother in Syria (which Alhalabi has denied).  Both accusations are short on details. (Like, what's a sanction?)

AP may have lifted the allegation of terrorism connections from a 2011 Sun Sentinel article, as did the New York Daily News. But the latter notes that his employer, Florida Atlantic University, said his accusers were "uninformed or deliberately misrepresenting the truth." AP doesn't carry that defense.

Part of the problem is what I wrote Wednesday on the follow-up coverage of the opening of the Ark Encounter park: trying to cover a story by remote. If someone from the Daily News had actually seen the two mosques, as I have, he/she wouldn't have mixed them up. And if WaPo had talked to someone at the Boca mosque, the newspaper might have known how old the current building is.

Now, the articles aren’t total train wrecks.  AP notes that Palm Beach County has listed about 80 churches and five synagogues or Jewish centers -- and no mosques, with the rejection of ICBR -- as polling sites. And CBS' Miami outlet yesterday noted a protest by Rabbi Barry Silver, a longtime liberal activist in Palm Beach County. 

"I don’t like the heckler’s veto," the rabbi said. "I don’t like because some people who might be intolerant or ignorant call up and complain, that the supervisor of elections should change a polling place based on those few people."

Of course, the CBS report was trailing WPTV's interview with Silver on Monday. CBS also reported that Alhalabi votes at a Catholic church near his home; but it showed no curiosity over which church it was or what the priest might say about the matter.

This habit of piggybacking off of other reports makes modern journalism even more superficial, in my opinion, than it was just a few years ago. It's worrisome enough when the topic is creationism versus evolution. But in a story that blends religion, politics and social issues, the danger of damage and distortion is even greater.

Thumbnail foto: Islamic Center of Boca Raton, from its website.

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