If anyone invents a time machine, it won't work better than mainstream media these days. With the latest wave of jihadi violence, such as the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, we're getting retreads of stories on how Muslims have much in common with the rest of us -- with little explanation of what that means.
It's like 2001 all over again, when stories like this one in the Sun Sentinel, where I used to work, covered interfaith services and open houses at mosques in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. Except that back then, we consulted our archives to see what had been already done.
Some in the current crop, of course, are better than others. WWSB, the ABC affiliate in Sarasota, Fla., puts up a local politician as the loyal opposition:
Multiple terrorist attacks have ignited strong dialogue, including GOP front runner Donald Trump's recent call to ban on all Muslims coming into this country.
Florida campaign manager and local Republican Party chairman Joe Gruters defended the controversial claim earlier this week.
"Certainly there's terrorist hotbeds in various countries, and we should be making sure the people we're letting into this country are vetted properly," said Gruters. "For that reason I think Donald Trump is taking a courageous stand."
Mind you, I'm not approving or disapproving Gruters' position. I personally don’t consider it courageous to hold an entire population responsible for the actions of a tiny knot of nuts. But that's not my call as a reporter, and it's not WWSB's call.
The station adeptly takes a local cultural event as a time peg. Station reporters found members of the Islamic Society of Sarasota and Bradenton taking part, using the International Food and Crafts Festival to mix with neighbors and introduce them to Islam. The station gets comments from two members of the local mosque and, of course, from a leader in the Florida chapter of CAIR. (However, the report doesn't say that it's a Muslim organization or even what the acronym stands for.) And it quotes a non-Muslim attendee who voices surprise that American Muslims "look like you and I, not just the stereotypes."
Exactly how the Muslims are defending their faith, however, isn’t spelled out. They mixed at the festival and declared an open-door policy at the local mosque. But precisely what they said, besides "We're just like you except for our religion," isn’t specified.
But the Sarasota piece is far better than one out of New Jersey, although at 800+ words the latter is more than twice as long. The Bergen County Record covers a rally at a local synagogue, said to have drawn members of more than 15 congregations of various faiths. The goal was ostensibly to show commonalities of all religions; but from the story, it was mainly to defend local Muslims.
Here is how it's framed:
Hundreds of people of different faiths gathered inside the synagogue on Sunday night to stand in solidarity against the "hate speech and rhetoric" following the recent atrocities in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
The event, organized by Rabbi Noah Fabricant of Temple Beth Or, was a reaction to the overwhelming "division and prejudice" that has emerged following the news of violent attacks in Paris, Colorado Springs, and San Bernardino, Calif., among others.
Fabricant said he hoped the "unity rally," as he called it, would serve as a way for people of different religious backgrounds to see the common values shared between Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and see with their own eyes how similar the religions are by supporting "peace against hate."
I'm not sure if the context of Paris, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino was supplied by the newspaper or the rabbi; but I'm a little disturbed that Charleston, S.C., and Roseburg, Ore., weren’t named. The killings there were as graphic and disturbing. They just weren’t attributed to Muslims.
I'm also curious on why the Record didn’t nail down attendance better than “hundreds of people.” The only other hint was that the event “needed overflow parking in two surrounding lots,” again with no numbers. Rabbi Fabricant or an usher, someone who knew the seating capacity, should have been able to give an estimate.
Not that this service wasn't good-willed, even picturesque. The groups “read messages of peace from their various sacred texts and sang songs from their religion.” The crowd was asked to “pass the peace of God” among themselves. The service ended with “different clergy members lighting a candle on the menorah and reading a message specific to each candle that highlighted the service’s values — unity and peace.”
All very nice. But let’s get back to those common values Fabricant mentioned. Like what? That's never answered. We just read the same message again and again.
Fabricant wants to “highlight the similarities of the religions.” An imam says, “We are all servants of God.” We’re told that those in the pews “wanted everyone across the country to recognize the similarities of different religions rather than focus on the differences.” And one of them says everyone should “reach for a commonality in the best of our traditions and use that to support one another.”
But the Record doesn't try to place this ghost in sharper focus. What about asking, “So, what in fact do the faiths have in common?” The rabbi and imam -- probably a minister or two as well -- likely could have come up with good answers. Things like sharing a history in the Middle East. And sharing much in theology and personal ethics. Why didn’t the Record ask that basic question?
Neither the newspaper nor WWSB go beneath the surface. One talks mainly about the need to "get to know our Muslim neighbors." The other talks about "shared values."
Fabricant tries to say that the mere example of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders in one service "sends a powerful message that we share common values and common goals in a way that just reading it, or knowing it, doesn’t."
OK, granted. But sooner or later, you have to explain to people what they're seeing. Without follow-up questions, news coverage merely logs words and actions, when it could impart understanding.
Photo: Folio from a Quran, from Near East or North Africa, eighth or ninth century, showing the end of chapter 38 and the start of 39. Uploaded by Senemmar to Wikimedia.org.