Political news this week was dominated by the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," but the Muslim community center at Park51 is neither at Ground Zero, nor is it chiefly a mosque. Late this week several news organizations including the AP issued memos which offered guidance as to how to cover this story. We talked to Yahoo! News media reporter Michael Calderone about the origin of this phrase and how it became media shorthand for this controversial story.
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FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Ground Zero Mosque controversy continues to grow. Supporters are screaming freedom of religion. Opponents are making it a campaign issue.
BOB GARFIELD: Political news this week was dominated by the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” the proposed Islamic community center being developed in a former discount clothing store two blocks from New York’s hallowed Ground Zero. Conceived not only as a Muslim version of the famous 92nd Street Y, including an auditorium and athletic facilities, the project has been described by its sponsors as an explicit symbol of Muslim anti-extremism in the former shadow of the fallen Twin Towers. It is, however, not located at Ground Zero. It’s two blocks away in a neighborhood that already includes two active storefront mosques. And if the project is completed, the mosque within would only be one of its multiple functions.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I believe that Muslims have the right to practice their religion, as everyone else in this country.
BOB GARFIELD: If President Obama thought a reminder of America’s founding principles and the Bill of Rights would quell the controversy, he was mistaken. Politicians, mostly Republicans, jumped into the fray. Mainly they accused the project’s sponsors of insensitivity to the families of 9/11 victims and Americans at large, a narrative that dovetails nicely with GOP talking points on political correctness and softness on terrorism.
NEWT GINGRICH: Nazis don't have the right to put up a uh, sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.
BOB GARFIELD: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The furor has been an unseemly, if unsurprising, spectacle of disinformation, political opportunism, political cowardice and bigotry, plus a great deal of simple misunderstanding about the who, what, when, where and why. Now, let's see, who’s responsible for answering the five W’s? Oh, that’s right, the news media, which have consistently and almost universally headlined their stories with the term “Ground Zero Mosque.” Michael Calderone, media reporter for Yahoo! News, wrote about the consequences of mass misnomer, and he joins me now. Michael, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL CALDERONE: It’s great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: So we've established that the Ground Zero Mosque isn't at Ground Zero. It’s not principally a mosque. And, by the way, there are plenty of other mosques in the neighborhood. Who was the first person who formulated this construction?
MICHAEL CALDERONE: It seems to be that it was on a FOX News broadcast in late December, although it should be noted that FOX News wasn't over-hyping the story at that point. It really wasn't for another five months that the Ground Zero Mosque really got picked up by mainstream news organizations like the Associated Press. Until that time, it was only some conservative bloggers who were sort of keeping this story simmering in the background.
BOB GARFIELD: There seems to have been a common thread with these stories in that the text of the print pieces did not use the term Ground Zero Mosque, but the headlines did.
MICHAEL CALDERONE: That’s correct. I spoke with the Associated Press about their coverage, and it’s true, they always have been very clear - usually in the lede - to say that the mosque is two blocks from Ground Zero or near Ground Zero. However, a lot of their headlines, and especially once the story became a bigger issue in late May, say “Ground Zero Mosque.” It’s become this sort of shorthand.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, these are news organizations that would never use the word “torture” to describe waterboarding for fear that it is ideologically loaded or judgmental, somehow. And yet “Ground Zero Mosque,” which isn't even accurate, has found its way into headlines straight across this great country of ours. Any thoughts as to how this has come to pass?
MICHAEL CALDERONE: I noticed that after the Associated Press started using it as a shorthand in headlines, it started getting picked up more. And that’s not a surprise because the Associated Press content reaches over 1500 newspapers and websites. Lots of newsrooms use AP style. And I think when you step back from the overheated debate that’s going on and think about word choices, maybe news organizations are going to start looking a bit more critically at the headlines they use. You would never call the building that is being planned to replace the Ground Zero Burlington Coat Factory - you would never call [BOB LAUGHS] a deli in Lower Manhattan the Ground Zero Deli. The mosques that have been near the World Trade Center site for decades have never been called the Ground Zero Mosques.
BOB GARFIELD: Once a use of language begins to take on an ideological tilt, when it begins to carry water for a political point of view, isn't there a special responsibility on the part of media not to use that?
MICHAEL CALDERONE: It is incumbent upon the media to look critically at who benefits the most from dubbing this project the Ground Zero Mosque. I think clearly it’s those who want to tie it to 9/11 in some sort of way. And if that’s clear, then I would think that editors would be a bit more wary. I spoke with The New York Times this week. I spoke with their standards editor, Phil Corbett, and he told me that editors decided, well, we should veer on the side of accuracy. And accuracy in headlines would be a mosque near Ground Zero or a mosque in Lower Manhattan or a proposed mosque, or something along those lines.
BOB GARFIELD: This has become a very highly charged political issue, but it’s actually not a political matter. There’s nothing unlawful about the building. It’s a private real estate transaction. Apart from planning commissions and so forth, the New York City government, much less the federal government in Washington, has no real say in this, do they?
MICHAEL CALDERONE: That’s why you heard Robert Gibbs in the briefing room over the last several weeks usually saying that the President wasn't going to weigh in because it wasn't a federal issue. Basically the project has cleared all the sort of local hurdles, the community boards. There was debate and discussion a couple months ago. It cleared the landmarks, which is a major hurdle in New York real estate. It’s passed those. So I think the critics of the mosque and the community center have succeeded in framing the debate, and the media has helped move that along by consistently describing it in that way.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael, thank you very much.
MICHAEL CALDERONE: Oh, well, it was great to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Calderone is a media reporter for Yahoo! News.
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