Libya either embracing or rejecting Islamism

It doesn't happen often but occasionally the Washington Post and New York Times will choose the same exact photo to illustrate their respective front-page, above-the-fold, lead story of the day. It happened earlier this month and late last year. Is it that surprising, though? It's not terribly bizarre that both papers might lead with the same national or international story and that there's one picture for that story that fits perfectly.

I find it more interesting when the opposite happens. When one paper leads with a national story while another buries it deep inside the paper or ignores it altogether.

But I found another situation even more intriguing. Earlier this week, two media outlets ran stories about the same topic. But note the difference in the headlines and ledes.

The Washington Post:

Islamists emerge in force in new Libya

TRIPOLI, Libya — For decades, bearded men in Libya were afraid to walk in the streets or go to the mosque, worried that to be seen as an Islamist would land them in prison, or worse.

As Libya’s leader, Moammar Gaddafi regarded Islamists as the greatest threat to his authority, and he ordered thousands of them detained, tortured and, in some cases, killed. The lucky ones fled the country in droves. But with Gaddafi now in hiding, Islamists are vying to have a say in a new Libya, which they say should have a system based on Islamic law.


Libya disavows extreme Islam as world looks on

When it comes to Islam, moderation is the keyword in Libya, a country at pains to assure the world that it will not become a center of extremism now that anti-Islamist leader Muammar Gaddafi has gone.

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York by al Qaeda, Libya's new de-facto president made a point of addressing the future of Islam in his country, which many abroad fear could take a militant turn.

"Ninety percent of us are moderate Muslims ... five percent are on the right and left sides," said Mustafa Abdel Jalil late on Saturday, in his first public appearance in Tripoli since it fell to anti-Gaddafi fighters on August 23.

What's even more intriguing is that apart from the headlines and ledes, the rest of the stories aren't quite as dissimilar. They describe Islamist groups as well-organized and focused but not at the point of a take-over or dictating strict compliance with sharia. That's rather the point of this Time article headlined "Libya's Revolution Produces a New Hybrid: Pro-Western Islamists."

I find it fascinating that two reporters can look at the same situation and have access to roughly the same facts and sources and produce stories with such different direction. While the careful reader of both stories will see that they're not terribly contradictory, the skimmer who just reads the first part of one will have a much different take than the skimmer who just reads the first part of the other. And what about that most common news consumer -- the headline reader? All bets are off.

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