Journal/Islam: Reporters, Commentators, Pundits and Islam

Since at least the 1970s, the representation of Islam and Muslims in the US mainstream press has taken two primary forms: 1) reporting on events that tend to emphasize the most sensationalist stories involving Muslims; and 2) editorials and syndicated columns that seek to shape public opinion on Islam and the Muslim World.  In general, the vast majority of US news reporting about events in the Muslim World are generated by press agencies, such as the Associated Press (AP) service, and reprinted in local daily newspapers.  Even though reporting on Islam and Muslims has been one of the staples of US news since the 1990s, historically there have been only a handful of US correspondents who possess expertise on Islam in the majority Muslim Middle Eastern, Asian and African countries.  The writings of experienced journalists, like John F. Burns who has been the New York Times bureau chief in Iraq or Anthony Shadid who covered Iraq for the Washington Post during the 2003 invasion, are the exception, rather than the rule when it comes to US reporting on those regions where Islam is the dominant religion.

The dearth of qualified US reporters covering events in the Muslim World contrasts significantly with the large number of syndicated columnists, commentators and talk show hosts who regularly make public statements about Islam and Muslims.  These columnists, commentators and media personalities, such as Steven Emmerson, Daniel Pipes, David Horowitz, and others have little or no expertise, yet they have played a crucial role during the last 10 years in defending US foreign policy in the Middle East and shaping US public opinion on Islam and Muslims.  One of the dominant themes of these commentators is that the growing presence of Muslims in the West (Europe and North America) represents a threat to civilization.  Consider for example, Stephen Pollard’s New York Times book review of Surrender: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom by Bruce Bawer (July 24, 2009), which opens with the following sentence: “There is no more important issue facing the West than Islamism, Islamofascism or — to use yet another label — radical Islam.”  Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has identified this trend in the US media with a generalized Islamophobia.   (See FAIR’s on-line publication “Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry and Misinformation”).  The negative rhetoric of these pundits contrasts with the somewhat more subtle writings for the press of scholars, such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, whose expert opinions are legitimated by their positions as university professors.  But both the popular pundits and the Middle East experts have used the media to convince public opinion that an aggressive foreign policy in the Muslim World (“The War on Terror”) and a authoritarian domestic security policy (The Patriot Act) are reasonable approaches to dealing with Muslims.

The campaign in the popular media against Islam and Muslims has effectively increased public hostility toward Muslims in the period between 2001 and the present.  A 2007 Pew poll on US public opinion on Islam and Muslims concludes that “70% of non-Muslims say that the Muslim religion is very different from their own religion, compared with just 19% who say Islam and their own religion have a lot in common. Two years earlier [2005], 59% viewed Islam as very different from their own religion. And in November 2001, just 52% expressed this view.”  The same poll also reveals a growing sense among the US public that Islam is not only a different religion, but that its difference is characterized negatively by almost 50% of the population, who view the religion as prone to violence and 30% who associate it with fanaticism, terror, and radicalism.  The poll shows that the most significant factor influencing US public opinion of Islam is the media (32% of respondents indicated that the media played a key role in shaping their view of Islam).

Salah D. Hassan