"African Christian bakes winning cake." Great story, eh?
No? Well, how about "South American Jew bakes winning cake"?
Still doesn't stir the blood? Then "Asian Muslim bakes winning cake" should.
That was the winning combination to inspire headlines in much of the British press and, unfortunately, at the dominant United States newspaper as well.
"Muslim Winner of Baking Contest Defies Prejudice in Britain," trumpeted the New York Times. Then it tells the story of a second-generation Bangladeshi who's just won a popular TV baking show. The story notes:
The victory of Nadiya Jamir Hussain, a petite 30-year-old, head-scarf-wearing mother of three from northern England, in a wildly popular reality show called "The Great British Bake Off" ... has been greeted by many in Britain as a symbol of immigration success.
The article tags her as an "observant Muslim," without saying how, other than her hijab. It says she has "spurred debate about national identity," although she was born in England. And it says she is seen as "an example of female empowerment," like it's unusual for a woman to win a bake-off.
Then the story shifts into fourth-gear flattery:
Ms. Hussain’s newfound status as a national role model was also seen by many as a powerful riposte to some of the anti-Muslim sentiment fueled by lurid reports of dozens of young Muslim Britons, including young women, who have gone to Syria to fight for the Islamic State.
Even Ms. Hussain’s triumphant final dessert, a “big fat British wedding cake,” offered a multicultural message of sorts by fusing her Bangladeshi and British identities. The lemon drizzle cake was decorated with jewels from her own wedding day in Bangladesh and was perched on a stand covered with material from a sari in red, blue and white, the colors of the Union Jack.
Note the vague "was seen by many" non-attribution attribution. This is, of course, the story's primary claim to a solid news hook.
Not that the Times is alone in its gush-fest. It quotes The Telegraph saying, “Never before has a Muslim woman wearing a hijab been so clutched to the nation’s bosom.” And author Shelina Janmohamed goes even further:
“She’s the face of today’s Britain: authentic, honest, creative, emotional, heartfelt and honest. Oh. And she’s Muslim. And she just happens to wear a head scarf.”
“But this newly discovered baking genius,” Ms. Janmohamed said, “despite being Muslim, isn’t cooking up any kind of Shariah-flavored sponge or jihadi cupcakes.”
Those quotes actually tell more about the buzz than Janmohamed may have expected. First she says Hussain's hijab is incidental to her British identity. Then she says Hussain is actually a good baker despite her religion -- as if someone tried to say they're mutually exclusive.
Standard Times catch phrases litter this article. It calls The Telegraph a "conservative daily newspaper." It says Britain has a centuries-old history of "baking stodgy desserts," part of "homespun culture." Reminds me of a column by my GR colleague Julia Duin, saying that NPR treated a story on North Dakota "like a visit to the zoo."
Let's not forget the aforementioned "female empowerment." The newspaper plugs that term into a reference to Hussain's husband, Abdul, who is said to have encouraged her to "pursue her passion" -- though it doesn't bother to quote him directly.
None of this is a diss on Hussain herself. By all accounts, she is a chatty, engaging person blessed with expressive frankness. The problem is when pundits and mainstream media, like NYT, try to stamp their own templates onto her experience. Who, precisely, thinks this is major news?
Here we are in the last four paragraphs of the 900-word Times article, and we have yet to hear from the winner. Does Hussain echo those who are plugging in their pet causes?
“I was a bit nervous that perhaps people would look at me, a Muslim in a head scarf, and wonder if I could bake,” she said. “But I hope that people have realized that I can — and just because I’m not a stereotypical British person, it doesn’t mean that I am not into bunting, cake and tea.”
The paper also piggybacks off a magazine interview, in which Hussain says that "desserts were not common in Bangladeshi cuisine." Taken together, the two quotes show that neither her faith nor her national heritage won her the baking contest.
OK, the Times isn't commenting on the significance of Nadiyah's win; it's just reporting everyone else's comments. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Actually, no, it doesn't do that. It reports mainly the media that fit the chosen narrative. The sole dissenter is a casual snark by a Daily Mail columnist. Amanda Platell suggests that another contestant's entry, a chocolate carousel, might have won if it were a chocolate mosque.
A better dissenter would have been Julia Hartley-Brewer of the Telegraph -- you know, that "conservative" newspaper. She first scornfully surveys reactions by other British journalists. The Independent saying that Hussain's win is a rebuttal to "xenophobic rhetoric." Another writer in the Daily Mail saying she has helped "to further the cause of Asian women -- and men."
Then Hartley-Brewer nails the paradox: In their "pontifications" about how Hussain has helped Britain transcend culture and religion, the writers are instead paying more attention to them:
By choosing to focus on Nadiya’s ethnicity, her religion and her headscarf, those commentators simply betray how it is they are still obsessed with colour, race and religion and don’t see anyone as an individual, just as a member of this or that “community”.
It is they who can’t see past Nadiya’s headscarf, not the rest of the country, who just quite liked the look of her cakes and thought she seemed nice.
They want to have their cake and eat it too -- by insisting that Nadiya’s racial and religious background don’t matter at all anymore, while at the very same time shouting loudly about the huge significance of her being a Muslim from an Asian family.
Same with the New York Times. By fixating on the religious and cultural angles, the newspaper ignores the obvious -- that the real story is simply about a nice lady who won a baking contest.
The cheerleaders even ignore their own heroine. In this TV interview, Hussain goes so far as to say her hijab has become "invisible" -- and she likes it that way:
"When I went in (to the contest), I was very aware of my headscarf. But in all honesty, throughout the process, I feel like that's what, it's invisible. It doesn't matter. That's how I kind of like to live my life. Yes, I am a Muslim. You know, I am a lot of other things, and it doesn't define me … I am me, and I am the baker.
Sure, celebrate the victory. Sample the sweetness. But acknowledge that Hussain's award is based on her baking, not her religion or her parents' nationality. Don’t make it a seven-course meal when it's just the icing on the news cake.