Did bloggers cause Cordoba mosque controversy?

Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son Christian Regenhard was killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks, speaks to board members during a Landmarks Commission's hearing on the proposed Cordoba Mosque to be built near the site of the former World Trade Center in New York July 13, 2010. REUTERS/Keith Bedford (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)

The two-thirds of Americans who oppose the Cordoba House might argue that theirs is a fairly understandable reaction against an ill-advised project. Some, such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, say that their opposition is part of a concerted effort that needs to be investigated. And this Washington Post story by Michelle Boorstein argues that if not for a couple of bloggers, Americans may never have become terribly interested in a $100 million Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero:

Long before President Obama waded into the vociferous debate over a mosque near Ground Zero, a group of conservative writers and bloggers critical of Islam had seized on the issue and helped transform it into a national political spectacle.

While some have dismissed them as bigoted attention-seekers, their attacks on the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan have gained currency in recent weeks among some Republican leaders. And their influence appears to be growing.

Most of the story is about two bloggers -- Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. But I'm not sure the story makes the case that, according to the headline, they "impact N.Y.C. mosque debate mightily." These bloggers have been blogging about any number of issues related to Islam for years, apparently. Is their continued blogging the reason for the debate reaching Defcon 2? Or are other factors more in play? I think it's without question that these bloggers have had some impact, but I'm not entirely sure if the case is made about the level of impact. I mean, I think the New York Post has been covering this issue almost daily for months, right?

We get a quote from Cliff May, head of a conservative foreign policy group and the former New York Times foreign correspondent and Rocky Mountain News associate editor, saying that staff on the Hill read the sites at a time when the major media isn't covering these subjects. But, of course, Cliff May's own writing against the mosque has been syndicated in newspapers across the country and linked all over the internet. Here and here, for instance. And I'm pretty sure, based on those and other writings, that he'd be more likely to caution against overemphasizing the importance of a shrill marginal blogger like Pamela Geller when discussing a mainstream political view than to say that leading opponents of the mosque project go to her for her insights.

The story says that Newt Gingrich will be appearing at a rally against the mosque, something I believe he has denied. We're told that "they" advise the FBI and other security agencies, although the story later only discusses Robert Spencer's consultation.

The details on Geller are interesting. I had heard of her before but didn't realize quite how colorful she was. (A video featuring her in, well, a bikini is available on the Post's web site.)

But while we do get quotes from Daniel Pipes praising Spencer's work, it might be nice to have more feedback from those who dismiss "them as bigoted attention-seekers" or evidence that "their attacks on the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan have gained currency in recent weeks among some Republican leaders."

And sorry, but this quote from Charles Johnson, of all people, just doesn't cut it:

Charles Johnson, creator of the national security blog Little Green Footballs, called Spencer and Geller "very influential." Listening to Gingrich's comments about Islamic law, he said, "Newt sounded a lot like he got it from Pam Geller."

I mean, you can read this utterly fascinating and provocative and New York Times profile of the erratic Johnson from earlier this year to see why he might not be the most credible witness, but even if he were, I'd like to think we'd have more to hang a hat on then someone saying that someone else "sounded like" they gleaned information from a third person. And you could probably quote hundreds of actual conservatives who think Geller and some of the other anti-Islam bloggers are fringe.

We're told that "their" efforts have had an impact because nearly 7 in 10 Americans are following the story and 61 percent oppose the mosque, etc., etc. But correlation does not mean causation. Unless the poll asked Americans if their change in views was due to Pamela Geller's bikini videos, there is really no way to tell if it was the videos or the media coverage or the political interest or what, exactly.

I guess I'm getting the feeling that Spencer is taken much more seriously than Geller but that even so, neither one is as influential in bringing this issue national attention as much as good old fashioned reporters and politicians have been.

I started reading about this story back in December 2009, when the New York Times covered it for the first time. My better half critiqued that story with remarkable prescience. Here's the ending:

Times reporters Ralph Blumenthal and Sharaf Mowjood really should have probably asked some more complex questions about what is motivating the construction of prayer center -- but instead were too willing to buy into the symbolism of the story and take a lot of platitudes about tolerance from Imam Feisal and his associates at face value. While the development of Imam Feisal's prayer center near Ground Zero may be encouraging on some level, the reality of the story is much more complex and less reassuring than the Times would have you believe.

And the very first comment to that thread was from someone who said:

I am going to be frankly honest here: the thought of Ground Zero in Manhattan as some kind of Islamic epicenter was kind of disturbing to me.

And then the comment thread gets into a heated discussion of the topic. Which is kind of what you might expect. This is a natural response to a completely mainstream news story. So I guess I'd like to see something a bit more tangible about bloggers creating a controversy. It's not the Occam's Razor explanation for why people have developed pretty straightforward opinions about a topic that New York papers, at least, have been covering since last year.

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