Apprehension underlies the letter last week from Syed Faisal, the secretary general of the Muslim Communities Association of South Florida, as he noted that The Miami Herald had ignored the Muslim holiday of Eid.
“I know thousands of South Florida Muslims were looking forward to The Herald greeting this Eid,” he wrote diplomatically.
Shabbir Motorowala was less restrained. “Of all the years, this could have been the most important year due to all the Islamophobic activities,” he wrote separately.
“I hope that Miami Herald did not give in to this hysteria and decide not to greet its readers.”
No, responded Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal. An “oversight” had happened due to the editorial staff being overworked as it learned a new publishing system.
“Some of the letter writers have asked if this had something to do with the recent controversies,” he added, “and I want to stress that is not the case. I hope that the paper’s approach to covering these stories — as well as the commentaries we’ve been running — speaks the loudest about where we stand on these issues.”
NYC AND GAINESVILLE
The “recent controversies,” of course, refer to the coverage of Terry Jones, the Gainesville minister who threatened to burn a copy of the Quran, and to the planned construction of a Muslim community center several blocks from ground zero in New York.
And what did the paper’s approach to these issues say? I went back to look. I found that the news coverage was responsible and straightforward, without editorializing one way or the other. The editorial pages took a firm position against the pastor and in favor of the community center — against Islamophobia, in other words — but ran some letters and columns with strong opposing views, including one hateful one.
An additional, vexing concern, meanwhile, was one debated inside The Miami Herald itself. A number of protests and deaths have resulted around the world because of an unimportant, fringe pastor of a 50-member church in a Florida college town. The reaction almost certainly would have been much worse had he gone through with the burning.
As Broward County staff writer Amy Sherman put it in an e-mail to me: “I think there are some valid questions to be raised about whether The Herald did the right thing by giving big 1A coverage to a religious nut who hates Muslims and Jews. Yes, there is a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment and fear in the U.S. right now, but most people who feel that way aren’t burning Qurans or support burning Qurans.”
“Honestly,” she added, “if we wanted to we could probably find some extreme racist/anti-Semite to profile every week. But we don’t.”
Jones was in many ways a media (writ large) creation, an example of how in this era of the reader-controlled Internet and 24-hour news cycle, the slightest story can take on a life of its own.
The response becomes so important that at some point, as Sherman and others in the newsroom helplessly recognize, responsible journalists have no choice but to cover it.
“I think that it is probably true that in another era nobody would have paid attention to this minister,” Gyllenhaal told me. But, he added: “I think that the issue is also symbolic and on people’s minds. It’s pretty hard not to write things that people are talking about.”
The best the newspaper can do in such circumstances, Gyllenhaal said, is “to cover the issue in a way that is appropriate to the topic.”
“We tried to write about the broader issues, about the lack of understanding between cultures and the fears behind some of the reaction,” he said.
I think that many of the news stories accomplished just that. Reporters Nirvi Shah and Jaweed Kaleem recorded Jones’ to-burn-or-not-too-burn peregrinations.
But vitally, they added the responses of Muslim leaders reaching out to him while cautioning their followers to be nonviolent despite the holiness of the Quran to Muslims.
“Tracing the roots of Islamophobia” was the headline on a calm, superbly reported analysis by Margaret Talev and Kaleem that went behind the slinging soundbites to look at the media images emanating from Iran and 9/11 in recent history and their impact, rightly or wrongly, on changing public opinion.
Mary Ellen Klas and Joseph Goodman, in a profile of Gainesville, reminded readers that Jones is not representative of a college town so committed to tolerance and diversity that it has an openly gay mayor.
On the editorial pages, letters from readers poured in, reflecting the entire community. “What would Jesus do?” asked Rachel L. Lebon of Miami. “I am quite sure that burning the holy scriptures of another faith would never be his choice.”
Of the many op-ed pieces against the book burning, the most poignant was by Nilu Choudhury, a domestic violence advocate in Miami. She recounted what it is like to be a third generation Muslim American and ended:
“I call on others in our country to join me in defending our collective belief in the Constitution and in our faiths, ensuring where we live is a better place for all.”
Letters and columns were more divided over the community center, but the opponents were more nuanced and responsible than Jones. James Salerno of Plantation brought the two issues together. He wrongly called the conservative writer Kathleen Parker a liberal, but reflected the anguish of many local citizens when he wrote: “While I don’t agree with pastor Terry Jones, I wonder if Parker has forgotten Americans jumping to their deaths or being consumed by flames as many in the Muslim world cheered.”
But one column went over the line and should not have run. Cal Thomas suggested that no more Muslim immigrants be let in the country and all mosque construction be banned or curtailed. “We must purge the evil from among us, or else,” he wrote. That is hateful.
Gyllenhaal and Opinion Editor Myriam Marquez defended the column as giving voice to a segment of the community. Faisal told me that he saw the column as part of free speech. He was just happy that more tolerant views dominated.
I am not so generous, but do agree with Gyllenhaal that it is better that fears be expressed publicly in the paper where they might be countered and, one hopes, eventually lead to acceptance all around.
“Some people understandably got frustrated that the debate was happening at all,” he said, “but it was probably worthwhile. The spark was dangerous, but the question behind about how two halves of the world relate was valuable.”
This column was originally published in the Miami Herald on Sept. 29, 2010.