Coast-to-coast coverage of anti-sharia protest offers lots of heat, but little or no light

Arguments about religion and freedom took to the streets around the country this past weekend as a group called ACT for America staged anti-sharia law demonstrations at roughly 28 locations around the country.

I wasn’t aware of the event until I read a piece in the Seattle Times announcing the rally. The lead sentence, which began with, “Supporters of an organization considered a hate group by local Muslims will gather in Seattle on Saturday…” told me all I needed to know about the Times’ take on the event.

Once again, we have one of those news stories where editors already know who is totally good and who is totally evil (there are no variations or debates on either side, you see) and there is no need to let readers hear from other voices. It's much easier just to write an editorial.

Sadly, the Seattle paper didn’t improve things much with its post-rally story

Supporters of an organization labeled an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center gathered Saturday in downtown Seattle as part of a national “March Against Sharia,” but were outnumbered by counterprotesters who used horns, whistles and chants to drown out their message.
The counterprotest, called “Seattle Stands With Our Muslim Neighbors,” drew a few hundred people to target the much-publicized demonstration sponsored by ACT for America. That group claims Islamic Sharia law — which is not in effect in the United States -- is a threat to American values. Sharia is religious law found in the Quran, and some Muslim-majority countries use Sharia law in their legal systems.

Did other media do better?

The report from ABC-TV quoted its Seattle affiliate and a Minneapolis newspaper about the status of rallies in both those cities, then quoted an Islamic studies professor in Hamilton, Ontario to comment on what’s going on in the States. Weren’t there any Islamic studies scholars in American universities who could be quoted?

CNN’s report was only a little better: 

A right-wing group protesting Islamic law, or Sharia, on Saturday clashed with counterdemonstrators in Seattle, Minneapolis and other cities.
ACT for America organized the marches in more than two dozen cities, saying on its website that "Sharia is incompatible with Western democracy and the freedoms it affords." The Southern Poverty Law Center says ACT for America is the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America.

Since when is the SPLC the sole arbiter of all things religious in the United States? Why are journalists quoting this group -- alone -- in story after story? Is there any need to alternative voices to debate this one activist group? Give me a break.

The Chicago Tribune had a much better lead paragraph that leveled the playing field between both sides and:

A small but emotional rally billed as opposing Islamic Sharia law downtown Saturday sparked a counter-protest nearly twice as large, causing a phalanx of police officers to act as a barrier between the two groups to prevent any fights.
About 30 people gathered at northwest corner of Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue, carrying signs that read “No killing Gays” and “Sharia abuses women.”
The group was split into two factions. One group of protesters along Wabash Avenue hoped to bring awareness to specific Sharia practices they claimed oppressed Muslim women and children. They wanted to distance themselves from what they said was a more “radical” faction –- protesters gathered near the Heald Square Monument, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric was met with anger and frustration by counter-protesters.

This article sought to explain the differences among the anti-sharia folks rather than just labeling them all as a hate group. By the way: Did anyone think to call LGBTQ groups to discuss  their views on governments that use Sharia as the justification for the punishment or execution of gays and lesbians? Why not call a feminist group or two?

The New York Daily News ignored ACT for America’s insistence that it’s not anti-Muslim but it is anti-sharia with this intro:

Anti-Muslim protesters marching in Lower Manhattan Saturday were met by a larger group of counter-protesters who drowned them out with chants of their own. 
The two sides faced off in Foley Square, where ACT for America, a lobbying organization opposed to Muslim immigration, organized a “March against Sharia” -- part of a series of nationwide marches the group organized Saturday.
About 100 demonstrators carrying signs with anti-Islamic slogans -- one reading simply “NO MORE MUSLIMS” -- shouted against Sharia law, which ACT for America argues is threatening the United States. 

The Washington Post, which had a similar lede, explained later in its piece why it was calling demonstrators anti-Muslim.

The group’s founder, Brigitte Gabriel, has said that she is anti-sharia, not anti-Muslim, a point that a number of the group’s speakers repeated Saturday. But Gabriel also has said that all practicing Muslims adhere to sharia, and speakers on Saturday made sweeping statements about Islam as an enemy of the state.
“We understand what Islam is, and we say ‘no,’ ” Pawl Bazile, a member of the right-wing Proud Boys group, told a cheering crowd of a few dozen people in downtown Manhattan. “You’re in the land of Budweiser and bikinis, for God’s sake.” Anyone who does not like it can move to Saudi Arabia or Syria, he said.

I didn’t see in any of these outlets a balanced discussion of what sharia law is and is not and whether it’s linked with some of the concerns (female genital mutilation, polygamy, honor killings, the execution of gays) expressed by the ACT folks. One would think, for example, that all Muslim cultures use and enforce sharia in precisely the same ways.

Why not a sidebar explaining the connection or lack thereof?

 It’s true that sharia law is not operating anywhere in the United States today but there are many people who are seeing it on their TV screens whenever the news concerns the Middle East. So, how is it operational there and not here? You've got states like Montana and Idaho with bills in their state legislatures opposing sharia law. Obviously there's a deep fear out there that it could happen here. 

Instead of demonizing the Act for America folks, why not explain why sharia isn't going to happen in America any time soon? Or is that too much work and it's just easier to cover the issue as a crowd story? Here was yet another moment when media outlets could have called in their religion reporters (if they have any) and told them to put the whole issue into context with a large analysis piece. 

That didn't happen, so all we got was two sides screaming at each other with hordes of police standing inbetween them.

That's one big lost opportunity for coverage that could have shed light instead of adding to the din. 

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