Media Backtalk: "Mosque madness" and the media herd: Howard Kurtz on the Islamic community center, Dr. Laura and the N word, JetBlue's Steven Slater, more

Aug 23, 2010

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz takes your questions and comments about the media and press coverage of the news.

Mindless march of the media herd

Howard - Thanks for your article this morning outlining the 'hive mind' developments, particularly those surrounding the recent (and to my mind, fabricated) controversy about the Islamic center two blocks from Ground Zero. Speculation question - might certain elements who have been shouting the loudest be using this story as a way of distracting from the upcoming election? I ask this because for a while the conventional wisdom has been that the GOP will overtake one if not both houses in November, their lack of specific ideas and initiatives cannot work in their favor for long. Could a story like this one allow them to bide their time until the second week of November, when, presumably, they would have to propose some policies as the new majority? Back to the story itself, though - is it primarily a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses problem, or a matter of journalists following the biggest trainwreck they can find (or maybe both)? Thanks.

  I appreciate all the feedback I'm getting on this column, which tries to tie together some of the frustration I've been feeling on recent media coverage, and not just about the mosque. A colleague just suggested I change my byline to Howard Beale.

   As for your question, with nearly two-thirds of Americans opposing the Islamic cultural center, standing  against the project is a political winner. Obama may or may not be right, but his position is a tough sell politically. That's why the GOP has embraced the opposition (along with such Democrats as Harry Reid).

   But anyone who thinks this is solely about proximity to Ground Zero should read the Time cover story on Islamophobia, or today's WashPost piece on fervent opposition to a mosque in Tennessee.

I finally heard a reasonable discussion of what the "Ground Zero Mosque" really is on ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour. It's equivalent to a YMCA (swimming pool, education center, gym, prayer space, just like my local YMCA). If it was presented like that by the media, would we have all this craziness ?

  I don't know, but "Ground Zero mosque" is clearly a misnomer. Whatever your feelings on this issue, what continues to amaze me is how the media coverage has dragged on and on and is still going strong. Even though the thing will most likely never be built, news organizations just don't want to let go.

Howard, the Mosque debate is important. It goes to the heart of what this country is becoming. The ugliness on display IS THE STORY. My question for you, and the Post in general, is why go out of your way to avoid addressng the obvious: the bigotry on display in MOST of the anti mosque protests? You can not watch that video of the one African-American carpenter caught in the Mosque protest yesterday, and taunts and chanting of the crowd and tell me it's a case of picking out a fringe sign...this WAS the crowd yelling at him. Or how about the two Egyptian Christians (as reported by who were verbally assaulted by the crowd as well. Why are you afraid to call bigotry what it is....Clearly, the anti -mosque zeal has nothing to do with sacred ground (unless Racine, Wisc.,  and Murfreesborough, Tenn., are sacred too)....

  I don't think most of the media coverage is avoiding the ugliness. I don't accept the argument that opposition to the Manhattan project is equivalent to bigotry; the raw feelings in the city that was attacked are understandable.  (Whereas the mosque controversies in Tennessee and elsewhere seem to be motivated more by religious intolerance.)

   But the ugliness is a direct outgrowth, in my view, of the saturation media coverage. Even after a front-page NYT story last December, as I mentioned in the column, the project proceeded quietly for months. Then conservative opposition prompted a tidal wave of media coverage of what remains, at bottom, a symbolic issue.

I appreciated your latest column re: "Mosque Madness" and was relieved to see that the WaPo apparently has finally dropped the "Ground Zero Mosque" shorthand. Unfortunately the change may be too little too late coming as it is two weeks into the coverage of the story. While this particular "issue" will fade with the coming of the next "crisis" the damage has been done, yet again. My question(s) is, where did the construction "Ground Zero Mosque" come from? Who benefited from the misrepresentation of the project and it's supporters implicit in the term "Ground Zero Mosque? Why did the media in general continue using such a construction to describe a project that could neither be seen from Ground Zero nor was a mosque? And finally, why did it take so long for trained journalists and their editors to stop using a description that obviously advanced the (demonstrably false) narrative being push by those on one side of the issue?

  Obviously, those who oppose the project pushed the notion that it was the Ground Zero mosque (the New York Post, as I noted in my blog last week, was the first major outlet to put this in a headline). Some news outlets accepted the formulation, either as journalistic shorthand or because it made for a punchier controversy. Only recently have I seen many news organizations pulling back from that description, though not from the controversy itself.

Two points on the Ground Zero mosque issue that you address today: 1. The herd you write about doesn't move unless it is whipped on by somebody, usually a politician. In this light, you don't address Newt Gingrich's comment that we wouldn't allow the Nazis to build a museum to Adolf Hitler across the street from the Holocaust Museum. 2. Why did Obama wade into this controversy? For the life of me, I can't figure out why. It's a local issue he could have ignored and he only worsened the matter by seemingly backing away from his initial comments on the dispute. By commenting, he made the mosque a national issue. Strikes me that a more seasoned politician would have stayed away from this one.

  My column today wasn't about the so-called mosque; it was about the media herd stampeding through a variety of stories, from that to Blago to Jet Blue and others.  By the time Gingrich jumped in with his analogy -- and how I wish we could ban all Nazi analogies from American politics -- the coverage was already red-hot. That made it hotter. And the president made it hotter still, first with his comments about religious freedom and then with his clarification to CNN that he wasn't taking a stand on this particular project. Obama DID remain silent for many weeks, but finally decided he had to speak out. That elevated the issue even further, and, with the midterms approaching, upset many Democrats in the process.

Did Pres. Obama intentionally start the media firestorm over the Ground Zero Mosque to fire up the left and his base in preparation for the November election ? If not , why would he choose to speak out after dodging the topic as a local problem for weeks ? He could have asked for donations to Pakistan at the Ramadan dinner.

  I think the only plausible answer is that he felt it was the right thing to do. The White House recognized that this would be a political albatross. The irony is that with his second-day comments, Obama ended up not pleasing either side.

Thanks for your recent article. I think one of your post colleagues Jonathan Capehart pointed out that political reporting seems to have a two-week cycle--where every two weeks, political reporters latch onto some spangly new partially- or completely-fabricated but easy to digest non-scandal. While I share y'alls frustrations, I don't see anything changing in the press anytime soon, and I wonder if anyone's ever done a poll on the American public's opinion of the mainstream press. I have a feeling that it would be even lower than our opinions of the White House, Congress, and the non-mosque not near Ground Zero.

  There have been lots of polls, and they mainly show that approval of the media is at an all-time low.  I would quibble with the two-week assessment. Some of these flap-of-the-moment stories last only a couple of days; others (as with the Ground Zero controversy) drag on for a month or more. They linger, especially on cable and the Web, until another sufficiently hot controversy comes along to steal the spotlight. And that, in this month of August, has not happened. All combat troops out of Iraq? Who cares when we can book more guests to argue about the mosque?

As a liberal, I rarely agree with you (sorry). But this morning, I was pleasantly surprised to read your column this morning, especially the first half. As the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons would say, "Best column....ever..." But for some media outlets to label it "the Ground Zero mosque," isn't that intellectually dishonest since it is neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque per se? Thank for your great column...

  I appreciate it. By the way, there are plenty of conservatives who don't agree with me as well.

that members of the GOP were talking about the community center for weeks before Obama jumped in the fray? No, none of them were as powerful as Obama, but Newt Gingrich isn't some small-time player, and he had an op-ed in this very paper a week before Obama said anything. Palin asked Muslims to "refudiate" it or whatever. This was already an issue when Obama started talking.

  I don't think anyone would dispute that. This thing took off well before the president weighed in. He did, however, give it a major boost when it might have been starting to fade.

The Daily Show has run several clips of current opponents of the Islamic center in lower Manhattan who were praising the whole project several months ago as a great thing. Have any of them been challenged on this? I am so disgusted by the majority in this country these days. Whatever happened to Civics education?

 We have short attention spans in this country.

Isn't that because we don't yet have a "new shiny object" for them to opine about?

  I have no doubt that's a factor. Nature, and the media, abhors a vacuum. Of course, we could collectively give the mosque business a rest and focus on Iraq, Afghanistan, unemployment, Roger Clemens and plenty of other issues. But except for the midterms, none of those is getting much traction compared to the Ground Zero dispute.

If you ever wonder why the media is drawn to such disgusting and mind-numbing stories, and beat them to death, just look at the usual type of comments you get after your columns, and other sites like The people who usually comment are a bunch of disgusting individuals that usually rant and rave from the right and left. I think that the media responds to these clowns, when the majority of Americans (moderates, either right or left) give up on the media, print and TV, but mostly TV.

  Maybe, but it's dangerous to infer that those who post comments are a representative slice of readers. Beyond that, some day I will figure out why news organizations allow people to hold forth while remaining anonymous (a few are belatedly changing this policy). We don't publish letters to the editor without people's names. Say whatever you want, but put your name behind it.

I'm an educated, rational person -- I'm not one to cavalierly seize on any little issue I don't like just to proclaim the mainstream media's imminent death. But that having been said, what the heck is the media doing with this so-called Ground Zero mosque?!? Are they actively trying to make this country ungovernable? I was flipping around last evening and it was the lead story on both the ABC and NBC nightly newscasts (don't know about CBS and we don't have cable). Video shots of angry protesters at the Park51 site and angry counter-protesters, all for a bogus issue that exists only, only because the media keeps talking about it. Aren't there any missing white women the media can obsess over? I don't think reporters have any conception of how much they shape the story simply by choosing what to cover.

  As I said, we're like a dog with a bone on this one, and we don't see any other tasty bones around. But there were demonstrations at the site yesterday, and in the current environment that's news. Of course, it's the saturation coverage that created the current environment.

For partisan purposes, one side or the other creates a mountain-sized controversy out of a molehill, gets its followers yelling about it to each other, then complains that the news media aren't covering the story because they are biased. But, not having the time or resources to investigate the story and report that it's really a molehill, not a mountain, the media reports on the controversy and with the desire to be "balanced" has to report that one side says this and the other side says that. Eventually, the media discover that the story wasn't quite what they said it was, but by then the public has chosen sides and no one cares about the details. If you were "King of the News", what actual steps would you take to prevent this from happening over and over again?

  My decrees would be useless, unless we want a state-run media (or Kurtz-run media), because news organizations are market creatures that try to maximize ratings and circulation. In some ways we specialize in making mountains out of molehills, but once that happens, of course there's a responsibility to get the other side. Most of these things are worthy of some limited amount of coverage; it's the weeks of hyperbole and shouting that turn me off (and, I suspect, lots of other people as well). It's like the missing women stories: of course they are crimes that deserve some coverage, but they shouldn't be turned into national soap operas.

I think it's good that this issue is so hot and heavy right now, because that makes it more likely that people will get tired of it pretty soon and begin to focus on actual important things.

  Send me an e-mail when that happens.

There are many other, probably more important, issues to cover. That said, none of those issues is creating protests in lower Manhattan. The response of the public to the mosque issue is something unique that is driving the story more than other issues. People want to debate Islamophobia, and it is an important topic that wasn't addressed during the Bush years.

  Bush, in fairness, visited a mosque a few days after the attacks and spoke up for the rights of Muslims.

  Another factor here is that it's in New York, where major media corporations are based and where stories always take on an outsize national importance. You didn't see the media focusing on the fight over the Murfreesboro mosque before this.

Interesting and fun article by a Ms. Heffernan on "fact-checking" and what it meant and means today esp. vis a vis the Web. Does the Post still employ legions of fact-checkers?

  The Post, like all newspapers, has never employed fact-checkers. That's been the province of certain magazines. Reporters, backstopped by editors, are supposed to check their own facts.

Why do the media as a whole side-step the Muslim-Americans that were killed on 9/11? Whenever a guest brings up the issue of those victims, hosts almost always change the subject. It seems that when families of the survivors are mentioned, the opponents speak as if all them feel the same. What about memorials that name all of the victims...are the Muslim-American victims ignored?

  I think that's a legitimate point.

Howard: In your column today re Palin's backing of Laura Schlessinger, you asked rhetorically why the media cover Palin's every tweet. Certainly, you know the answer--it's readership and page views. As the most divisive figure in American politics, the woman people either love or loathe, putting a story with "Palin" in the headline on the front page or home page is guaranteed to get a response. If the words "Consumer Product Safety Commission" got the same level of click-through, I can guarantee the CPSC would be featured in the Post (and NY Times and LA Times and Chicago Tribune, et al.) every single day.

  Sarah Palin also happens to be an important force in Republican politics, so of course her pronouncements -- issued mainly through Facebook and Twitter when she's not on Fox -- deserve coverage. But your point is spot on. Anything having to do with Palin generates Web traffic and ratings points. The polarization around Palin virtually guarantees it.

Howard: Great column today and great discussion here. Isn't the problem, though, WHO is stoking this story? Doesn't this story prove once and for all that nearly all the talkies on TV/radio are entertainers and not journalists in any way, shape or form? A journalist (at least) tries to get to all sides of an issue. Entertainers, though, have no obligation to do that. So why are these folks still being referred to as media people?

  Because they have media megaphones. I think, if we're talking about television, that most people get the distinction between hosts and commentators ( who are supposed to be opinionated) and anchors and correspondents (who analyze stories but are basically paid to cover the news). Of course, a dispute that becomes huge on the opinion side winds up drawing increasing coverage on the news side simply because the noise level is pushed so high.

After finally hearing the infamous Dr. Laura segment, I think this is another case where the newsworthy aspect of a story can obscure the real problem in the story. The issue wasn't that Dr. Laura used the N-word several times. Instead, it was her insistence that complaining about racism is worse than racism. She came close to sounding like the 1950s segregationists who claimed that race problems were the creation of civil rights "agitators." Telling an African-American caller that she needed to stop being so sensitive about racism would have been bad enough. But a newspaper article or even a transcript doesn't fully capture the condescending tone in Dr. Laura's voice. Does she always sound like that with her callers? The other issue that I didn't initially pick up from the media was that the caller wasn't protesting racism in general, but was concerned about racism directed at her personally by her white in-laws. Would you agree that the media distorted the issue by largely ignoring the context?

  I would say there was too much focus on the N-word (which she was using to make a point, albeit 11 times) and not enough on the context. When I listened to the audio, what I found most offensive was when Dr. Laura told the black caller that if she was going to be so sensitive, she shouldn't have married outside her race.

   And by the way, when Schlessinger was complaining to Larry King about her First Amendment rights being violated, she was totally off base. That amendment involves government infringement of free speech. She said something controversial, she got hammered for it, and she decided to give up her radio show. When you have a national platform, people have every right to complain. They have free speech, too.

"It's the saturation coverage that created the current environment." I think the issue has been festering and it is the saturation coverage now that has brought it to the forefront. But, like today's article in the Post shows, there is a growing tide of Islamophobia in both urban and rural parts of America. Media acting alone can't create the groundswell of protesters (for and against) the mosque. If it could, it would have the public demanding tax-exemption for all journalists or something equally self-serving, pardon the cynicism.

  It's certainly been bubbling beneath the surface. And I'm glad that some news organizations are now broadening the conversation through deeper reporting, as with the Time cover and today's WP piece. But that doesn't let them off the hook for whipping up a frenzy over the Ground Zero project.

The Post ran an op-ed written by the daughter of a Muslim American victim, who was against the community center. Democracy Now interviewed the mother of a Muslim American police cadet who was killed on 9/11, who was for it. And there are now organized family groups against it, and for it. I really don't think this debate is about the will of or the needs of the families, otherwise it would be brought up that not even the families of the deceased are all in agreement.

  Well, they are divided. Ted Olson, whose wife Barbara died on 9/11, has also supported the Islamic center project. But many other victims' families view it as an insult.

I disagree with the premise that most people get the difference between news reporters and commentators. If that is so, why do so many people think Obama is a Muslim? People turn on FOX NEWS and expect to see NEWS. I know you bend over backward to be fair-- but I think may who watch news channels, believe what the commentators say. Why wouldn't they. It says news.

  There is a lot of misinformation out there, and that's a depressing example. But I haven't seen anyone who works for Fox News say Obama is a Muslim. That's been more of a weird whispering campaign that has somehow gotten traction with a chunk of the public.

   But do you really think most people don't see the distinction beween O'Reilly, Hannity, Beck, Olbermann, Maddow, Matthews et al and Sawyer, Williams, Couric, Tapper, Todd and Reid? Sometimes the lines are blurred, but the difference is as real as that between a newspaper's news pages and op-ed section.

  Thanks for the chat, folks.

In This Chat
Howard Kurtz
Kurtz has been the Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War," "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk.
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