The line between news and opinion

geoclassA good newspaper editorial page will be staffed by reporters with a drive toward breaking news. Most, it seems, just write bland, predictable opinion pieces in response to the news of the day. So I'm not opposed to seeing a columnist break some news on her beat. I think it can promote some healthy competition with the regular newswriters. But I keep waiting to see some mainstream coverage of what appeared in a couple of controversial columns in the Star-Tribune by conservative Katherine Kersten. On March 9, she wrote a column asking whether taxpayers were footing the bill for an Islamic school in Minnesota:

Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) -- named for the Muslim general who conquered medieval Spain -- is a K-8 charter school in Inver Grove Heights. Its approximately 300 students are mostly the children of low-income Muslim immigrant families, many of them Somalis.

Kersten summarized older news reports about the school and noted that the principal refused to let her visit the school to report on what she saw. A month later, a substitute teacher reported that the line between school and mosque had blurred:

Now, however, an eyewitness has stepped forward. Amanda Getz of Bloomington is a substitute teacher. She worked as a substitute in two fifth-grade classrooms at TIZA on Friday, March 14. Her experience suggests that school-sponsored religious activity plays an integral role at TIZA.

Arriving on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, she says she was told that the day's schedule included a "school assembly" in the gym after lunch.

Before the assembly, she says she was told, her duties would include taking her fifth-grade students to the bathroom, four at a time, to perform "their ritual washing."

Afterward, Getz said, "teachers led the kids into the gym, where a man dressed in white with a white cap, who had been at the school all day," was preparing to lead prayer. Beside him, another man "was prostrating himself in prayer on a carpet as the students entered."

"The prayer I saw was not voluntary," Getz said. "The kids were corralled by adults and required to go to the assembly where prayer occurred."

Getz also reported that Islamic Studies was incorporated into the school day. While officially extracurricular, teachers had written assignments on the blackboard for all the courses -- including Islamic Studies -- and were told to record them in their day planners. The man who led the prayer in gym taught the Islamic Studies course and, significantly, buses did not leave until after Islamic Studies were over.

I saw the story last week -- as well as the ensuing discussions on various blogs -- and figured I'd write up whatever mainstream media coverage happened in its wake. Well, I'm more or less still waiting. The principal responded to the article in an op-ed.

There was one story reporting the principal's claims that he had received derogatory phone messages and emails after the column ran. But unless I'm missing something, there has been no reporting on the facts outside of the editorial page! Hint to the Star-Tribune assignment editors: if readers are taking their complaints directly to the school, it might be in the public interest to, you know, actually report on what's happening there.

In the meantime, Kersten continues to report on religion news. Her most recent column reveals that the University of St. Thomas is refusing to allow a campus pro-life group host a pro-life speaker.

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