Rare reverse New York Times 'Kellerism' as ex-jihadi tells why he converted to Christianity

Media hounds -- if you're reading GetReligion that probably means you -- will likely recall the recent dust up involving television news icon Ted Koppel and Fox's Sean Hannity. They went after each other over the impact on the body politic of the often confusing mix of "news" and "opinion" that now dominates American journalism.

It started, you'll remember, when Koppel criticized Hannity in an interview Koppel did with him for CBS. Koppel, a network news traditionalist, labeled Hannity's unabashed advocacy style as "bad" for America.

That followed Hannity's statement -- and Koppel's expressing the opposite opinion -- that Americans were media savvy enough to discern the difference between reported facts and individual opinions. Said Hannity:

We have to give some credit to the American people that they are somewhat intelligent and that they know the difference between an opinion show and a news show.

Koppel and Hannity were talking, in the main, about contemporary cable TV. But as GetReligion writers repeatedly note, the same may be said these days of any news platform -- print, web and broadcast.

I happen to believe that what we were sure was hard news just a couple of decades ago was not entirely free of opinion. Journalism has never been pure (and nobody at this weblog has ever argued that it was). News media have too much influence on political and social issues for the power elite to always resist the temptation to manipulate information for its own ends.

But that's another post. Suffice it to say that I agree that the mixing of fact and opinion today is greater than I've ever witnessed in my 50-plus years in and around the news business. This piece from The Washington Post strikes me as a solid summation of the situation.

Ironically, it's also a clear example of the trend it explains, in that it ran without any label alerting readers that it was loaded with opinion, which it clearly is.

True, it was played in the Post's Style section, which has long been much looser than the paper's news pages about mixing news and opinion. But lowering the bar does not absolve journalists from clearly identifying opinion when that's what it is; just a thumbnail photo of the writer or a different type face can be enough to tip off the reader.

I've been at this craft long enough to discern news from opinion. Virtually any news pro (or student) or media-savvy news consumer will also spot opinion/analysis woven into a piece. But I'm not sure the less media-savvy -- and I would include most Americans in this category -- consciously recognize this.

Just last weekend GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly -- as he does regularly -- noted that when it comes to religion reporting, the opinion bias most often coloring the facts favors liberal moral and religious views, if not outright secularism.

Several years ago, tmatt coined a journalism term to express this -- "Kellerism." Click here for the remarks by retired New York Times editor Bill Keller that inspired this move.

Well, tmatt's correct about that, of course (I say this as the GR in-house religious liberal). Moreover, I'd say that spotting Kellerisms in the mainstream media is a -- if not the -- prime reason GR regulars, who tend to be of a conservative bent on religious doctrines (as well as conservative when it comes to old-school journalism basics), are attracted to our site.

But "most often" is not the same as "always." Sometimes, a reverse Kellerism pops up, even in the  Times. This piece -- which was presented as a straight news feature story -- is Example A.

It's enough to make you think that some Times people (hello editor Dean Baquet) think that all those conservative cries for the newspaper to be fair and accurate in religion coverage means swinging over to the opposite extreme. Nobody here thinks that or wants that.

This piece ran under the headline, "The Jihadi Who Turned to Jesus," and was labeled (online, at least) "Saturday Profile" and placed in the web version's Middle East news section.

It told the personal journey of Bashir Mohammad, born a Syrian Muslim Kurd, who fought with the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda offshoot, but eventually left the Sunni Islamist group because of his disgust at the brutality it displayed toward other Muslims.

Eventually, he fled to Turkey with his wife. When his wife became seriously ill, his cousin in Canada who had converted to Christianity had his prayer group pray for her, and she recovered. This turned Mohammad toward Christianity. The piece notes the following:

The conversion of Muslim refugees to Christianity is not a new phenomenon, particularly in majority-Christian countries. Converts sometimes stand accused of trying to enhance their chances of asylum by making it dangerous to deport them back to places with a history of Islamist persecution.
Mr. Mohammad’s particular experience, however, does not fit easily into this narrative. He lives in a majority-Muslim country, has little interest in seeking asylum in the West and treads an unlikely path followed by few former jihadis.

Read the story a bit further and you'll encounter this paragraph:

Exactly why [Mohammad] sought solace in Christianity, rather than a more mainstream version of Islam, no one can quite explain. Reading the Bible, Mr. Mohammad claimed, made him calmer than reading the Quran. The churches he attended, Mr. Mohammad said, made him feel more welcome than the neighborhood mosques. In his personal view, Christian prayers were more generous than Muslim ones. But these are subjective claims, and many would reject the characterization of Islam as a less benign religion, much as they would reject Nusra’s extremist interpretation of it.

That's an interesting paragraph. It includes broad generalizations that can only be ascribed to the writer's point of view (aka opinions), and an admission that the deeply subjective nature of Mohammad's claims means he's being taken at his word -- a decision that means the writer is inclined to believe him. Then again, that last sentence could also be read to mean the writer rejected what the convert said, but I doubt this.

However, the only persons mentioned in the story that confirm any of Mohammad's claims are his wife and the "missionary from an evangelical group based in Jordan called the Good Shepherd," who apparently administered whatever formal conversion Mohammad underwent.

Neither of the two, to say the least, can be considered unbiased observers. Lacking any other points of view in this story, that appears to be reverse Kellerism, I'd say.

Additionally, unaddressed are questions -- basic factual questions -- about whether Mohammad is attached to a specific congregation in Istanbul, where he reportedly is living, or why, at just 25 and new to Christianity himself, he leads the prayer group mentioned in the story's lede.

A third question that comes to mind is why so little information was provided about the Good Shepherd "evangelical group" that facilitated Mohammad's conversion. While a link to the group is provided in the Times piece, it takes you to a primarily Arabic-language page, which I cannot translate -- though I might note that the last name of the missionary in the Times piece is spelled differently in English on the website than it is in the story.

Perhaps no more information about Good Shepherd was provided to protect it. To facilitate Christian conversions in increasing Islamist Turkey has got to be dangerous. I would imagine that being a new evangelical Christian refugee in Turkey also has to be dangerous, not to mention economically fraught.

So I wonder. Will Mohammad remain in Turkey or will he decide he can do better in, let's say, majority Christian Canada or Germany? And if so, how long will he continue to call himself Mohammad?

Let me be clear. I question this story's construction, but I am not questioning Mohammad's conversion, and certainly not his escape from a sadistically violent version of Islam. Nor am I theologically judging Christianity or Islam. This is strictly about the journalism and what news consumers are able to read between the lines.

My point here is only that there are many stories out there in American journalism land that, consciously or subconsciously, assume a Christian viewpoint. This piece came from the Times but my bet is there are many more such reverse Kellerism stories from the nation's heartland -- even if many are poorly constructed -- than we at GR get to comment on.

In short, Christianity isn't always sold short by mainstream media.

Let me also say that I don't think tmatt and the other folks here ignore reverse Kellerism links -- URLs pointing to stories -- sent in by readers. So if you see any NEWS pieces, not commentary, that turn Kellerism on it's head, please let us know. We will all appreciate it.

Please read the full Times story yourself. And please let me know what you think. I'm a big boy and can withstand criticism.

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