Street preaching is so uncouth

I've been meaning to cover the story of the four Christian evangelists who were arrested at the Dearborn Arab International Festival in June. It is fascinating to me how much coverage the media devoted to the non-burn of the Koran in Florida compared to the actual "going ghost" of Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris or the actual arrest of four street evangelists in Dearborn. I would just love for someone who was involved in the coverage of the Koran burn threat to explain why they wrote eleventy billion stories on the Florida pastor and none on these other situations.

Anyway, the point I wanted to make when I started this post was that we haven't seen enough coverage. But a reader sent in a story from the Detroit Free Press that is worthy of taking a look at. It's about how the four were acquitted by a jury recently. But reporters Naomi R. Patton and Niraj Warikoo sound more like disappointed prosecuting attorneys than reporters:

A jury Friday acquitted four Christian missionaries who were accused of inciting a crowd while videotaping themselves proselytizing to Muslims at the Dearborn Arab International Festival in June.

Nabeel Qureshi of Virginia, Negeen Mayel of California, and Paul Rezkalla and David Wood, both of New York, were acquitted of breach of peace, 19th District Court officials in Dearborn said after the verdict. Mayel was found guilty of failure to obey a police officer’s order.

The article fails to explain why the missionaries were arrested. We're told that they were charged, variously, with "inciting a crowd," a "breach of peace," and, later in the story, "disorderly conduct." But we're never told what specific actions led to the arrest.

In fact, I'm not even sure if these reporters were at the trial, which seems odd. But certainly they could get some specifics in there. You can watch the video above which clearly shows officers swarming the evangelists as they hand out copies of the Gospel of John on a sparsely-populated street near the Arab festival. You can watch a police officer tell the videographer -- who is in the distance -- that he has to hand over his video equipment and turn it off. They were detained at that point and told that they couldn't distribute the Bible on public streets that were within five blocks of the festival. But that's not when they were arrested. You can read their account here. (Now's as good a time as any to mention one of my favorite GetReligion comments from before I even worked here. Will Linden said something like "I share, you evangelize, they proselytize.")

Now, I don't know anything about the trial, but I think it's fair to say that they were acquitted because, well, there was no incitement. The group engages in street apologetics and evangelism. That certainly conflicts with the zeitgeist, but, last I heard, is still protected by the U.S. Constitution. Of course, there's so little information about the trial, that for all I know, they were acquitted for some other major reason.

Instead of an explanation of the events that led to the arrest, or a description of the trial, or a discussion of First Amendment freedoms, we instead get many paragraphs describing the mayor's position on things:

Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly Jr. said Friday night that he respects the decision but that the missionaries were anti-Muslim bigots pulling a publicity stunt to gain attention on YouTube in order to raise money.

A video the group posted last year about their encounters at the festival has had almost 2 million views. The group solicits money on their website when they travel to Dearborn, claiming the city is a hotbed of Islamic radicalism.

"It's really about a hatred of Muslims," O'Reilly said. "That is what the whole heart of this is ... Their idea is that there is no place for Muslims in America. They fail to understand the Constitution."

O'Reilly said people of diverse religious beliefs get along fine in Dearborn. He said several other Christian groups at the festival this year and in years past have never had problems. Other evangelical Christians have criticized the group for their tactics.

"They engaged in a misrepresentation of what Dearborn really is," O'Reilly said of the four missionaries arrested.

OK, I get that Dearborn has a large Muslim population. So presumably the mayor is just being political -- and not satirizing Dearborn police for arresting Christian evangelists -- when he attacks the Christians for failing to "understand the Constitution." That's how most politicians view their job -- to do whatever it takes to get re-elected.

But that's not a reporter's job. A reporter's job is to be specific about facts, to provide context, to balance a piece so that it doesn't just give the government's position. So for facts, how about telling us which "other evangelical Christians" have criticized the group. And, for fairness, do "other evangelical Christians" defend the group? On what grounds do they criticize the group? On what grounds are they defended? And since we're at the basic who, what, when, where, why and how level of reporting -- what type of Christian group do the exonerated activists belong to?

One last thing. Up above we learned that Mayel was found guilty of failure to obey a police officer's order. What was that order? Why was it given? When was it given? Who gave it? These arrests happened in June. Isn't that enough time to get the facts nailed down? As the reader who submitted it said, "surely a single detail on the only conviction in the entire case isn't too much to ask?"

A previous story indicates that this charge was related to videography. This is a huge issue in the libertarian community -- citizens are wrongly being told they can't video police activity. They're charged with "failure to obey police" or "interfering with government administration" or "recording without permission." These details are certainly needed for a basic story about a conviction. The story ends, somewhat comically, with a characterization from attorney Robert Muise:

During the trial, he contended his clients' First Amendment right to free speech was violated and said they did not harass anyone.

So there. Great job, Detroit Free Press! I'm not saying a story on the exoneration of street preachers shouldn't include opinions about whether it's couth or not. But that certainly shouldn't be the focus and it should include a discussion -- not a one-sided attack.

The Dearborn Press & Guide did a much better job with the story -- leading with the defendants' attorney, discussing the free speech problems with arresting people for videotaping police, including the mayor's views without taking direction from them, etc. This Associated Press story seemed to just attribute their story to the Detroit Free Press.

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