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"To the Editor: Obama Is a Muslim"

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Standards Vary on How to Handle Readers' Assertions

Islamic Center Controversy Rated Week's Biggest Story

Five Years Later, Some Still Get New Orleans Wrong

. . . Order Authorized Shooting Looters, Reporters Find

Ed Gordon, Paul Mason Team for Sunday Show on BET

Open Mic Catches Insult to NBC's Natalie Morales

Howard U. Joins ABC's College News Bureaus

Wayne State Tops List of Black-White Graduation Gaps

Televangelist's Slander Suit Against ABC Reinstated

Short Takes


President Obama prays with Christian leaders at the White House before the Easter Prayer Breakfast in April. Some contend that his faith is in the mind of the beholder. (Credit: Pete Souza/White House)

Standards Vary on How to Handle Readers' Assertions

If President Obama is not a Muslim, why do some newspapers publish letters to the editor claiming that he is?

The e-mail list of the National Conference of Editorial Writers provided a glimpse into the thinking behind whether to publish such assertions when Michael Landauer of the Dallas Morning News, assistant editorial page editor for reader engagement, asked his colleagues for advice:

"We have six letters from people saying they believe Obama is a Muslim. We have one saying that people who believe this are scary. A new poll says something like 20 percent believe Obama is a Muslim," Landauer wrote on Friday.

"Is this a matter of opinion? Or is it a fact that people have wrong? (We do not knowingly print factual errors, of course.) . . .

"In the Obama-Muslim case . . . an effort was made to deliberately spread misinformation. That lie was repeated, even as it was debunked time and again. If enough people spread the lie that Obama is not a citizen or was a drug dealer, would we allow that, if enough people came to believe it? No. It is not true, and therefore, we should not allow people to assert that it is.

"Anyone disagree?"

The answer was yes, or possibly yes, as editorialists weighed in over the next few days. Some explanations were, well, nuanced.

"What makes this trickier than the birth/citizenship issue is that no one but Obama knows whether he ever believed in Islam, or if he did, whether his conversion to Christianity was genuine or just for political cover," wrote Linda Seebach, who retired as an editorial writer at the old Denver Rocky Mountain News in 2007. ". . . I'm glad I don't have to make this call."

Another said, "Doesn't the assertion depend on the context in which it is made? 'I believe Obama is a Muslim' would surely pass muster on our Letters page. (Since we're ready to take it on faith that indeed the writer does believe such a thing.) If you edit letters, and can make it clear that this is what the writer believes rather than what is, I'd say such a view would be publishable."

"What makes this even more intriguing is that at least some religions have definitions of who is part of that religion," Larry Reisman of the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida wrote parenthetically. "Would it be fair to say that a person born to a Jewish mother, for example, is Jewish even though he is an atheist or converted to Christianity? The Nazis apparently thought so. So, if Obama was born to a Muslim father, would that make him a Muslim? Seems to me (just my opinion, though) that your religion is what you practice - or don't." However, he hastened to add, "But how relevant is it to the conversation/issue?"

Reisman continued, "In this case, we know of the controversy of Obama praying at the Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright's church. It's a FACT he attends church, not a synagogue or mosque. If someone wants to say he's a Muslim sympathizer or raised by a Muslim for part of his life [that] certainly would be OK. But to say he's a Muslim is not accurate."

A fourth said, "Giving letter writers latitude is good for the page, especially when there's a counterbalancing letter ready to go. Where it gets messy is in drawing the line. If you allow a letter writer to say he believes Obama is a Muslim, do you allow the next writer to say that she believes only a racist would make such an outlandish statement, given the evidence to the contrary?"

Another editor said the key was in having the letter writer list his or her sources. "The first time I heard the 'birther' claim about Obama, it was from a letter writer. I did some research and found plenty of evidence refuting the contention, and then had a polite conversation with the writer, and he was just as polite but insistent on the core claim. So I published his letter with references to the sources he used, figuring readers can make their own decisions about the credibility of those sources," this editor wrote. His solution won approval from Landauer.

But Tricia Vance, editorial page editor at the Wilmington (N.C.) Star News, told Journal-isms the real issue was "taking very seriously our mission to provide accurate information to the best of our ability."

"I may be a prickly purist (not to be confused with Puritan), but repeating misinformation is how misinformation spreads," she wrote to the e-mail list on Wednesday. "Nip it in the bud, as Barney Fife would say. Just because it's an opinion doesn't mean it doesn't have to be in the realm of accuracy - and you're right that we do need to have higher standards, even if bloviators and cyber cranks insist on spreading false information. There is no credible proof that Obama is a Muslim and in fact there is plenty of proof that he is not.

"If the rest of the letter is acceptable, it might be OK to edit the questionable portion to note that he has Muslim roots, which makes the writer's point without sacrificing accuracy. My guess is that many of the people who say they believe Obama is a Muslim actually are concerned that his family ties and the fact that he spent some formative years in a Muslim country may taint his view and make him think too kindly toward a religion they fear and don't understand."

In the end, Landauer didn't run any of the six letters he asked about. "We had better letters that referenced the controversy but didn't make the claim directly. We went with two of those," he told Journal-isms.

Nearly one-third of the airtime studied on cable TV and one-fourth of that on radio was devoted to the controversy over the planned Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. (Credit: Pew Research Center)

Islamic Center Controversy Rated Week's Biggest Story

"The debate over the proposed Islamic center a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood was the biggest story for the week of August 16-22, accounting for 15% of the newshole studied by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism," Jon Morgan of the Pew Center wrote. "That was a sharp increase for a story that has simmered mainly on the blogosphere. Much of the boost could be attributed to a comment at a White House dinner by the President.

"The withdrawal of the last combat brigade from Iraq made the war the No. 2 story last week, with 9% of the newshole, according to the PEJ News Coverage Index, which tracks coverage across media sectors each week. . . .

"Controversy over an Islamic center that would include a mosque planned for a site a few blocks from ground zero in New York provided a case study in the divergent agendas of different sectors of the media culture. The proposal elicited strong reactions from people across the political spectrum and dominated the ideologically driven talk shows on both cable TV and radio — but registered barely a blip in mainstream newspapers.

"Nearly a third of the airtime studied on cable TV (29%) and one-quarter of that on radio (24%) was devoted to the topic. When straight-news programming from those sectors is removed, an analysis of cable and radio talk shows in the PEJ sample showed an even bigger fascination with the controversy: 45% of airtime, making it by far the biggest topic on those programs.

"Online news outlets, meanwhile, devoted 10% of their newshole to the mosque controversy. Network TV, by contrast, devoted more time to Blagojevich’s legal troubles (11% of the airtime studied)," a reference to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, "and Pakistani flooding (also 11%), pushing the mosque story into third place for the week (9%). Newspapers devoted 3% of their newshole to the subject."

Five Years Later, Some Still Get New Orleans Wrong

"We’re almost five years removed from Hurricane Katrina, and some people are still struggling to accept this new crop of 'professional New Orleanians,' those of us who advocate tirelessly for our city and who won’t shut up because our story clashes with their narrative of the storm and our demands seemingly conflict with their ideas of American grit and self-reliance," Jarvis DeBerry, editorial writer and columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, wrote on Tuesday.

As examples, he cited Washington Post television critic Hank Stuever and historian Douglas Brinkley.

"More than simply struggling to accept this new breed of New Orleanian as fully rational and fully justified in demanding recompense for this city’s destruction, such critics have labeled us lemmings. Take note of The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever who reviewed Spike Lee’s documentary 'If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.' Not content with judging the film on its artistic merits or lack thereof, Stuever also used the opportunity to review New Orleanians, as when he writes: 'Lee remains transfixed by the Army Corps of Engineers’ failures in the levee construction department, which brought on the flood. New Orleanians remain immobile on this point: Katrina did not cause the floods is a mantra, while New Orleans is below sea level seems an irrelevant bit of trivia.'

"What’s irrelevant, at least for the purposes of Stuever’s insult, is the bit of trivia that reveals that 50 percent of the city is at or above sea level. Some neighborhoods are 10-12 feet higher than that," DeBerry wrote.

“Innumerable media reports following Hurricane Katrina described the topography of New Orleans as unconditionally below sea level, noted a 2007 report from Tulane and Xavier universities’ Center for Bioenvironmental Research. 'This oversimplification is inaccurate by half, and its frequent repetition does a great disservice to the city.'

"But even if every inch of the city were below sea level, that wouldn’t absolve the corps of the 'failures' that Stuever correctly notes. The city’s elevation didn’t contribute to the flimsy construction of the levees or to their collapse."

As for Brinkley, "Lee’s documentary reminded me of just how tired I am of former Tulane historian Doug Brinkley, who’s been an unreliable source on life in New Orleans for quite some time now. Dismissing our civic pride, our love of place, as mindless and knee-jerk boosterism, Brinkley diagnoses us all as having an inferiority complex. We celebrate ourselves, to hear him tell it, because deep down we hate ourselves.

"That’s psychobabble of the highest order. New Orleans has problems now and had problems before the storm. That’s indisputable. But our high regard for ourselves, our traditions and our city is hardly a facade. Our love for this city is not a pathology and does not deserve to be treated as such."

. . . Order Authorized Shooting Looters, Reporters Find

"In the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, an order circulated among New Orleans police authorizing officers to shoot looters, according to present and former members of the department," according to the latest collaboration of PBS' "Frontline," ProPublica and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

"It's not clear how broadly the order was communicated. Some officers who heard it say they refused to carry it out," continues the story by Sabrina Shankman and Tom Jennings of "Frontline," Brendan McCarthy and Laura Maggi of the Times-Picayune and A.C. Thompson of ProPublica, posted Tuesday. "Others say they understood it as a fundamental change in the standards on deadly force, which allow police to fire only to protect themselves or others from what appears to be an imminent physical threat.

"The accounts of orders to 'shoot looters,' 'take back the city,' or 'do what you have to do' are fragmentary. It remains unclear who originated them or whether they were heard by any of the officers involved in shooting 11 civilians in the days after Katrina. Thus far, no officers implicated in shootings have used the order as an explanation for their actions. Only one of the people shot by police — Henry Glover — was allegedly stealing goods at the time he was shot."

Ed Gordon, Paul Mason Team for Sunday Show on BET

Journalist Ed Gordon's return to Black Entertainment Television will include a Ed Gordon, left, and Paul MasonSunday morning talk show, he told Multichannel News on Tuesday. It will be produced by Paul Mason, who retired from ABC News last year as senior vice president, BET told Journal-isms on Wednesday.

"Format-wise, it's best to compare it with what Bill Maher has been doing on HBO in the sense that we'll start with a headline interviewer, with the middle segment a roundtable of a diverse grouping of folks from entertainers to politicians," Gordon told R. Thomas Umstead of Multichannel News. He said the program starts Oct. 3.

"For us, particularly with the Shirley Sherrod incident and all that we've seen over the course of this year, what's often lacking is true perspective from all corners. So we hope that this show will provide an African-American perspective. We believe there are a number of people, places and things out there that don't always get talked about that need some press, and we hope to give some attention to those people and headlines.

"This show will not be solely political — we want it to be topical. So if it's something that America is talking about, or more specifically Black America, in any specific week, we'll be talking about it on that show. It could be pop culture, it could be social, academic or political, and at times it could be fun and frivolous. We'll always do something of import that week, but it's not going to be a Sunday morning wonk show in and of itself."

BET announced a Sunday morning show last year after Barack Obama's inauguration, proclaiming that the network had developed a new high-mindedness of purpose. But the show did not materialize. Meanwhile, TV One launched "Washington Watch With Roland Martin." At about the same time, Mason, then the highest- ranking black journalist in broadcast television news, officially stepped down at ABC.

Gordon told Umstead there will also be "quarterly one-on-one specials much like the ones that I used to do at BET. . . . The title will remain the same as it was before, 'Conversations With Ed Gordon,' so we hope to duplicate the success that we had before. Our first guest will be Steve Harvey . . . the kickoff subject for a number of specials that we'll do starting Sept. 26."

Open Mic Catches Insult to NBC's Natalie Morales

"As thousands of El Pasoans set their televisions to KTSM-TV Channel 9 to either watch the Miss Universe pageant or wait for the 10 p.m. newscast, they were treated to one of those live TV slip ups that come only once in a lifetime," the Media Buzz column of the El Paso Times reported on Tuesday.

"Right as the co-host of the Miss Universe Pageant — Today show host Natalie Morales and rocker Bret Michaels — were about to announce the winner of the pageant (it ended up being Miss Mexico), the people at the KTSM sound booth flipped on the microphones at the station. So for about 30 seconds you heard the mic checks at the station even though the image on your screen was that of the Miss Universe pageant.

"A female on-air talent is heard doing the mic check and reading the first line of the lead story, something to do with Sheriff Richard Wiles. After that, though, she ad libbed and her rant turned to the journalistic integrity of Natalie Morales.

"The female voice says: 'Mic check 1, 2, 3. Sheriff Wiles. We are now watching Natalie Morales who is a sad excuse for a journalist.'

"Morales, in case you're wondering, has a long journalism resume doing work in local news and nationally for MSNBC and NBC News."

News Director Hollis Grizzard told Journal-isms that he would not identify the woman; but that a report in the subscription-only NewsBlues column named the wrong person. "We're dealing with it internally," Grizzard said. "We don't take it lightly."

Howard U. Joins ABC's College News Bureaus

"As millions of college students make their way back to class, so too is ABC News' student project: ABC News on Campus. For its third year, the program has added Howard University to the growing list of college news bureaus," Chris Ariens reported Wednesday for TVNewser.

"Launched in the fall of 2008, ABC News on Campus is a partnership with top journalism schools designed to educate and mentor talented college students. In its first year, five schools — ASU, Syracuse, the University of Florida, UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Texas — took part."

The bureau chief at Howard is to be Candace Smith, a senior broadcast journalism major at the John H. Johnson School of Communications, Lisa deMoraes reported in the Washington Post.

Wayne State Tops List of Black-White Graduation Gaps

It couldn't have been good news at Detroit's Wayne State University that it topped the list of the 25 public colleges and universities with the largest white-black graduation-rate gaps. (PDF)

That's especially when the school is celebrating the 25th year of its Journalism Institute for Media Diversity, "a one-of-a-kind honors program with the goal of encouraging, supporting, and training the next generation of media talent with a focus on diversity," as the Arab American News described it.

According to an Education Trust report, Wayne State had a three-year average graduation rate for whites of 43.5 percent, but one of 9.5 percent for African Americans. California State University-Fresno was in second place for the largest gap among public institutions. Among private schools, the largest gaps were at Lawrence Technological University in Michigan and Alverno College in Wisconsin.

Alicia Nails, who directs the Journalism Institute, told Journal-isms, "We don't track journalism students of color, but certainly all of the students who remain in the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity Honors Learning Community graduate from WSU.

"The other aspect that's good to note is that a solid percentage who leave the Institute due to their GPA also remain and earn their degrees as well. . . . The Institute is only open to students who have a 3.0 or above, are majoring in journalism, and want to take part in a Learning Community."

She added in her e-mail, "When the State of Michigan passed Prop 2 in 2006, the Journalism Institute for Minorities became the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity.

"While the university clearly tracks students by race, etc., the Journalism Program ceased all race-based initiatives at that time. Therefore, I'm unable to provide a racial breakdown of the membership.

"There are typically 25 members and we'd like to see that number increase to 35. Next year we're offering 4 year full scholarships to two entering freshmen to assist that goal."

Televangelist's Slander Suit Against ABC Reinstated

The Rev. Frederick Price"A federal appeals court reinstated a slander suit Tuesday against ABC-TV by a Southern California televangelist who was misleadingly shown on '20/20' as bragging about his wealth," Bob Egelko wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.

"The ruling could come into play in another national media controversy — this one involving a U.S. Department of Agriculture official who was fired after a blogger posted a video that appeared to show her making racist remarks that in fact were taken out of context.

"The Rev. Frederick Price sued ABC and its then-correspondent, John Stossel, over the news program's use of a film clip of one of his sermons in a March 2007 program.

"It showed him telling his congregation, 'I live in a 25-room mansion. I have my own $6 million yacht,' a private jet, a helicopter and seven luxury cars.

"Stossel introduced the clip by saying Price boasts of his riches, and followed it with a discussion with a watchdog about ministers who hide their church's finances.

"In fact, however — as ABC acknowledged in a subsequent apology and retraction — Price was speaking not about himself, but about a hypothetical person who was materially wealthy and spiritually unfulfilled."

Short Takes

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Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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NCEW and Obama is a Muslim.. BTW is he Black or Bi-racial?

I think the solution is for journalists to educate ourselves about Islam. For example, do the NCEW respondents know Islam has a profession of faith? Have they consulted an Imam or a scholar? The increase in Islamophobia and misinformation should push us to become better informed.

Wayne State University Deserves an F

It is almost criminal that an urban university cannot excell in educating and graduating its students of color with high rates given the critical educational mission of education in urban venues.

I would argue the leadership at Wayne State University must be held accountible for this abysmal failure in not graduating minority students as well as white students in high percentages.

Given the outstanding  graduation outcomes of students in the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity perhaps it's Director Alicia Nails should take on the leadership of the entire university. I would approved of that outcome!!!


"To the Editor"

In my day, when I edited letters to the editor for the Orlando Sentinel, we followed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's wise counsel: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts." We wouldn't publish blatantly false assertions, and as President Obama has gone on record as accepting Christ, assertions to the contrary are false.

I hate to say it, but even the headline on this item spreads the falsehood around.

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