Sunday, August 15, 2010

The burden is on us

As a journalist for my whole career, I've long been aware that, in covering a dispute, try as he or she might, somewhere in a reporter's head lurks a judgment as to who is right. The key to honest journalism is not to try to be some kind of magical person with no opinions. It is to be a fair person - one who makes sure to accurately report all sides of a dispute. (And not just the nut-case arguments, but the best arguments.)

(Which is why, the more I read about the Fox "News" commentary by Beck, O'Reilly, etc., the more I have to cringe.)

Anyway, what has caught my eye in recent days is the brouhaha over plans to build an Islamic Center, complete with gym and swimming pool, a couple of blocks (and behind tall skyscrapers) from what probably forever will be known as "ground zero" in lower Manhattan. Latest in the brouhaha was Obama's assertion of the Constitutional right to religious freedom in the United States. Naturally, some people freaked.

But, once again, the question is how to fairly report the issue. I think reporters have done rather well. Covering the pro-project people, journalists have pointed out that the developer, Columbia grad Feisal Abdul Rauf, who calls himself an "anti-terrorist," is co-chair of the Interfaith Council of New York which promotes interfaith harmony. His wife notes that 19 Muslims died in 9-11. What better place, say says, to begin that harmony. Certainly that's what the Bush administration was after - promoting a rational Islam by helping build "moderate" mosques across the world.

Yet opponents say most people who lost loved ones on 9-11 are against an Islamic Center so close to Ground Zero - the symbolism is just too tough to take. Right-wing politicians are having great fun blasting Obama, Muslims, and crying big tears for the bereft mothers.

So how do you report this in the mainstream media? How do you emphasize the Constitution right to freedom of religion in this country - and the danger of succumbing to the mob - while still giving equal time to those stirring the mob?

America has a long history of religious intolerance, starting with the Catholics. Journalists know this. But they also they know they must contact everybody concerned, and report all sides of such disputes.

It's up to you and me, the readers or listeners, to sort it out.

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