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Monday, September 20, 2010

A Wedge Issue Becomes Too Hot to Use

Stack of newspapers
It's an example of how stupid our national discourse has become. On September 11, the Portland Press Herald in Maine ran a front page story on Eid al Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan. It was the worst thing ever, according to some readers, and editor Richard Connor felt the need to issue a front-page apology the next day.

We made a news decision on Friday that offended many readers and we sincerely apologize for it.

Many saw Saturday's front-page story and photo regarding the local observance of the end of Ramadan as offensive, particularly on the day, September 11, when our nation and the world were paying tribute to those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks nine years ago.

We have acknowledged that we erred by at least not offering balance to the story and its prominent position on the front page.

This struck a lot of people as crazy. In fact, if covering Eid on 9/11 could, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered a mistake, apologizing for it was a bigger one. Coverage of peaceful Muslims must now be "balanced" with coverage of violent Muslims? That's a pretty offensive stance. Connor now claims he was answering complaints that he didn't cover 9/11 at all, but the opening paragraphs of the apology suggests the complaints were about Muslims in the paper on 9/11 -- as if they're real Americans and not outsiders who all share responsibility for the worst terrorist attack in American history. In fact, a lot of people took it that way, which is probably why Connor took to NPR's On The Media to defend his editorial decision to apologize.

It's a contentious interview, probably a little more confrontational than NPR listeners are used to. But Connor was trying to rewrite his apology and interviewer Bob Garfield wasn't going to let him get away with it. As is often the case with NPR's website, the comments following the interview are a mix of the dumb and the thoughtful. Let's focus on the thoughtful.

"I am a subscriber to the Portland Press Herald, and I was appalled by Richard Connor's apology," wrote Edie Doty of Portland. "On the Media has taken NOTHING out of context. The questioning of Richard Connor is fair, and the reason the interviewer questions him harder is because Connor is denying what he quite plainly wrote. His apology does indeed state that the coverage of Ramadan should have been balanced with coverage of 9/11. He could have written a column that said the folks who complained about the lack of 9/11 coverage on 9/11 are right, but those who complain about the Ramadan coverage are wrong and here’s why. (For background: ten years ago, there were only a handful of Muslims in Maine; Portland has since resettled many Somali refugees, so a Ramadan ceremony of the size covered in the newspaper is indeed news.) Connor, who is relatively new to Maine himself, had a golden opportunity to address the anti-Muslim hysteria sweeping the country and to appeal to people's better selves. He blew it."

But it's a commenter who identifies himself simply as "Robert" from New York City who makes the best point:

I wish that Bob had posed the following hypothetical to Mr. Connor: Imagine that 9/11 had received the same amount of coverage on 9/11 as it actually did, but instead of the end of Ramadan there was an article about a lobster festival or a major celebration at a local institution such as the Bath Iron Works or L.L. Bean. Would there have been as many complaints that 9/11 coverage was shortchanged?

Good point. In fact, you'd imagine that any frontpage story other than Muslims celebrating a holiday would've gone pretty much unnoticed. Would there be outraged letters to the editor over coverage of a school bake sale on 9/11? Yeah, that seems pretty doubtful. As much as Connor tries to spin the reaction away, it's hard to remove it from the context. People complained about positive coverage of Muslims on the anniversary of 9/11 and he wrote a frontpage apology for that coverage.

But this demonstrates what's become a larger problem with the aftermath of the Republican Summer of Hate -- you just can't win. Which means that, sort of by default, the side advocating tolerance comes out on top. Capital newspaper The Hill reported this weekend that the big anti-Islam hate festival has become so toxic that none but the most committed rightwing loons are willing to touch it. For the most part, the anti-Islam propaganda is coming from those not facing elections. While it's also true that Democrats aren't taking the issue on either, the effect of having nearly everyone drop it is a return to the pre-Summer of Hate status quo.

"Both sides smell danger on this issue," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, told the paper. "The Republicans [are wary] because they run the risk of going over the top and looking narrow and bigoted, which is never a good thing to appear, particularly to independent voters, who are so important in these midterm elections... And on the Democratic side there is clearly the fear that if they hit the civil liberties and intolerance theme too hard, that'll play very well in liberal districts but maybe not so well in swing districts where people are maybe a little bit more ambivalent about the whole thing."

If Democrats are afraid to defend Muslims, it hardly makes any difference -- Republicans are now afraid to attack them. With the exception of a few nuts who don't stand a chance anyway, the whole "Let's all hate Muslims!" thing is done -- at least, as far as actual candidates go. Newt Gingrich and Pam Geller aren't likely to moderate on the issue any time soon (or ever), but we're moving into the election season, they're not running for anything, so they're going to see a drop in coverage of their grandstanding. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if people on the right tell them privately that they need to dial it back. Whether they'd even take that advice is another story. In Geller's case, once this is over, she goes back to being nobody.

So, does this mean the whole thing is over? Not in reality. The anti-Islam nuts are still going to be anti-Islam nuts. But as far as the mainstream media is concerned, yeah, it's pretty much done. Whether this is just a cease-fire or a lasting end to hostilities remains to be seen, but one thing is clear -- the Republican summer of hate has backfired on Republicans. They put a lot of effort into creating this wedge issue out of thin air and now it's too dangerous to touch.

While it would be better to have all the haters renounce hatred, this is probably the best we'll ever get in the real world. It's not the best resolution -- mostly because it's not a resolution at all -- but if it's the best we're likely to get for a while, I'll take it.

For now.


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