There's been a lot of coverage of attempts to convince voters that Barack Obama is a Muslim. But according to a report released by the liberal watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, no one's talking about the underlying presumption: Muslim is a pejorative term. FAIR's senior analyst Steve Rendall explains.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There’s been a lot of coverage of the attempts by Obama opponents to convince voters that he’s a Muslim. Journalists have fact-checked that assertion and reported that the, quote “smear” isn't true. He’s not a Muslim. But according to a report published by the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, there’s a presumption underlying that whole discussion that has become an accepted part of the reporting, that being Muslim is, in fact, a smear, an insult, a charge to be vigorously fended off.
Steve Rendall is a senior analyst at FAIR. Steve, welcome to the show. STEVE RENDALL: Oh, it’s great to be on, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So a portion of your study is called “Secret Muslims, Open Bigotry,” and it focuses on the idea that no one’s talking much about that unspoken notion that being a Muslim is, you know, bad. Do you have any examples of the media inadvertently playing into that message? STEVE RENDALL: Well Brooke, we have The New York Times and ABC News calling it a smear, as if there were something suspicious or bad about being a Muslim, if it were true. If a charge came out that a politician was a secret Jew, that story would be treated as a story about, first, a false charge, but also as a story about anti-Semitism.
And how do we know this? We know this because in 1990, in Poland, the Roman Catholic incumbent running for prime minister was targeted by a whispering campaign claiming that he was a secret Jew. There was all sort of umbrage taken in American newspapers. Richard Cohen wrote about it and said it was a peculiar virus of Poland, and we had The Atlanta Journal-Constitution weighing in, saying, whew, it’s good we're not like that. As it turns out, it’s not that peculiar a virus.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can we talk about political realities here? Maybe the unspoken assumption isn't that being a Muslim is bad, but that it is a clear political liability. On top of that, there have been millions of emails glutting mailboxes every day saying that not only is he a Muslim, but he’s a double agent, ready to deliver the country into the hands of terrorists.
So isn't calling it a smear merely an acknowledgement of the fact that if he were believed to be a Muslim then this would destroy his chances of becoming president? STEVE RENDALL: I think you summed it up perfectly. It does present a special problem for journalists. Journalists must deal with the fact of the matter. One, Barack Obama is not, in fact, a Muslim. Two, there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim. And, three, getting to the bottom of that bigotry, doing stories about how it is that we've got to 2008 and being considered a Muslim might destroy somebody’s chances of being elected. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In terms of asking a reporter to say, no, he’s not a Muslim and, by the way, being a Muslim isn't a bad thing, I mean, what do you do? Do you just tack on the Seinfeldian, he’s not a Muslim, not that there’s anything wrong with that? STEVE RENDALL: Well, that’s putting it a little bit flippantly. I think what we'd point out is that double standard, again, that if somebody was being accused of being a secret Jew, we'd have a discussion not only of the fact of the matter, we'd also have a discussion of the underlying anti-Semitism in that campaign. The second part is not happening, in this case.
And our report is not just a matter of talking about how the media sometimes miss the ball on this. It’s also talking about how the media often abet this Islamophobia.
We have, for instance, in the last couple of years, Bruce Bawer’s book, While Europe Slept was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Now, two members of the board protested that nomination of an explicitly Islamophobic, bigoted book smearing an entire religious group.
In the last couple of years, Mark Steyn had an explicitly Islamophobic book on The New York Times bestseller list and Robert Spencer had two. So we have this rising tide of Islamophobia, and very little being done to confront it on the part of journalists. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in your report you identify 12 pundits who are the leading teachers of anti-Muslim bigotry, in the words of the report. On the list, Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage? I mean, Michael Savage? I mean, this is a Who’s Who of people who make a living insulting every group that’s out there.
More importantly, they're preaching to the choir. Do you have any evidence that these guys are having any impact outside of the echo chambers in which they dwell? STEVE RENDALL: Well, let me first address the idea that they're bigots towards everyone. We document Michael Savage in this report calling for the killing of 100 million Muslims. We have Bill O’Reilly saying that Iraqis are - they're all Muslims. They're just doing what they're doing. They're killing each other and killing Americans.
As far as they're just preaching to the choir, I think the fact that these people that we named, these 12 here, several of them – Glenn Beck, Hannity, Pat Robertson, O’Reilly, Savage – have national media purchase. These people, in some of these cases, are actually sponsored by big national media conglomerates.
And the other people named often appear in this same media, spouting this notion that Muslims have a secret plan to take over the world, which echoes back to the protocols of the Elders of Zion. So there are some very strong similarities here with the history of anti-Semitism.
And I think these are some of the things that we want journalists to not just no longer abet but to actually explore and expose. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve, thank you very much. STEVE RENDALL: Oh, it’s great to be here, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve Rendall is a senior analyst at FAIR.