L.A. Times Story Mis-covers Muslims

A humbling experience any journalist should have to suffer is to be part of a story rather than its observer, because it is a wonderful reminder that "the first draft of history" is indeed just that. As with the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the reproduced sketch of reality will sound remarkably different depending upon whether the reporter grabbed the tail, the trunk or the ear.

Usually, varying interpretations and often minor mistakes are the result of earnest attempts to do the job under the serious time and financial restraints most journalists work under. There are times, however, and far too many of them, when reporting seems to be so sloppy that one must question either the reporter's professional ethics or the publishing institution's unacknowledged biases.

Such was the case on Sunday, in a mild little article in the Los Angeles Times entitled "Muslims Ponder Postwar Iraq," which surely garnered little attention from both that newspaper's huge readership or its editors. While holding no hint of libel or slander, and having no glaring factual errors that I can see, the piece is a clear if subtle example of how reportorial laziness or bias can give consumers of media a picture so misleading that one would be better off not reading it at all.

"With Saddam Hussein's whereabouts no longer in question following his highly publicized capture, hundreds of Muslim Americans spent Saturday pondering another puzzle: How will democracy take shape in postwar Iraq?" reads the lead paragraph of Times Staff Writer Julie Tamaki's article. "The topic was one of more than a dozen up for discussion at the annual convention of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which promotes the idea of an American Muslim identity. The weekend conference, 'Progressive Islamic Thought and Human Rights,' was expected to draw more than 1,500 people to the Long Beach Convention Center."

So far, so good. It's nice, after all, that the Times felt it worthwhile to send a reporter to an event advertised as both politically progressive and religiously Muslim, since neither of those interest groups gets much play in its pages. However, the depth of the Times' commitment to the story becomes clear once we realize that Tamaki apparently spent very little time at the two-day conference -- perhaps no more than an hour.

How do we know this just by reading the 428-word story? Well, because the entire story is about a one-hour "working lunch" panel on Iraq, and everybody quoted in the story is from that panel, with the exception of one innocuous comment from the organizing group's executive director about the convention in general. And the vague language of the article -- "scheduled workshops included …", "was expected to draw…" -- make it clear that she relied heavily on the convention's press release to fill it out.

OK, so the reporter did some drive-by reporting. Big deal, right? Wrong, because the one panel featured in the story was not at all representative of the convention, which I attended as a panelist and guest. By quoting only its outspoken participants, the story gives us the completely false impression that most of those attending likely support the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Nowhere does the Times report that for many, the panel's speakers were oddly out-of-step with much, if not most, of the audience -- and the convention's other speakers, which included Colgate Prof. Omid Safi, editor of "Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism"; legendary anti-war and human rights activist Blase Bonpane; Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, who showed a video which graphically displayed the censorship of images of war and occupation seen by the rest of the world's media, even on CNN International; and even the Times own columnist (and my father) Robert Scheer, who received a standing ovation for his aggressively anti-occupation keynote address.

A further sign of the convention attendees' feelings about the occupation can be seen in the fact that in a straw poll of 800, more than 67 percent planned to vote for anti-war candidate Howard Dean and only two percent for Bush. As Reuters' Caroline Drees reported in a much more serious story, "Upon hearing the poll results, one delegate said, 'How did Bush manage to get 2 percent?'"

Yet not only does the Times report not note any of this anti-occupation sentiment, or believe the intriguing use of the word "progressive" in association with a Muslim organization merits no mention -- this is a group that just gave a media award to Michael Moore! -- but in fact gives the first and last word to Ali Tulbah, an associate director in the White House Office of Cabinet Affairs who just spent six-months working for the occupying administration.

As slick a flak as you'll see this side of the West Wing, Tulbah's presentation was a steady pitter-patter of White House-sanctioned nonsense, such as the frequent citing of "a coalition of 60 countries" without indicating that many of those on this strange list not only didn't send troops to Iraq -- Palau, anyone? -- but actually contributed nothing more than mild statements of non-opposition. As quoted in the Times, Tulbah "expressed optimism about Iraq's future," citing the existence of Internet cafes and satellite dishes to back him up. Is it too cynical to note that in most of the world, repression, poverty and even civil war coexist quite well with satellite dishes and Internet cafes?

(Tulbah's prominent presence was even odder in the light of his controversial appearance at MPAC's 2002 convention, when, I was told by one participant, the crowd had turned on him for refusing to answer questions put to him that, if answered honestly, would have put the Bush Administration in an embarrassing light.)

Up next in the Times' recounting is Jafar Al-Qazwini, who is also, coincidentally "optimistic about the future" under U.S. rule, although he does allow that the security situation could use a little stabilizing. The statement's of Islamic Center of Southern California spokesman and MPAC senior advisor Maher Hathout, the panel's other member, are reduced to "voicing similar concerns" as Al-Qazwini -- perhaps he was deemed insufficiently optimistic!

When asked what the U.S. response would be if the Iraqi people passed a referendum for the U.S. troops to immediately leave the country, Tulbah blandly concludes that "We don't have any reason to believe that there is a groundswell for coalition forces to leave immediately. People are waiting for the democratic process to take root."

This last response, Tamaki allows, "drew grumbles from the audience." This oblique reference, in fact, is her only acknowledgement that there might be anybody at this convention actually pessimistic about the odds of good things emerging from a U.S. occupation that has been, by all accounts, bungled from the very start.

Tamaki's article, in sum, was grossly misleading, and more egregiously so on a subject , 'progressive Muslims,' that gets shamefully little attention. The truth is that we would have better off if the journalist had spent her lunch hour at the nearby Queen Mary rather than taxing her ability to paint an accurate picture of the event she was allegedly covering.

Christopher Scheer is the co-author of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq" and edits AlterNet's War On Iraq section.

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