Sometimes prejudice is subtle. On CNN Sunday, it was not.
“Why is it that no one within the Muslim community there in France knew what these guys were up to?” CNN anchor John Vause asked Yasser Louati, a French anti-Islamophobia activist.
Louati responded graciously, saying the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims should not be held responsible for the actions of a few extremists. “Sir, the Muslim community has nothing to do with these guys -- nothing,” he said. “We cannot justify ourselves for the actions of someone who just claims to be Muslim.”
Vause dug in his heels, claiming he had “yet to hear the condemnation from the Muslim community on this, but we’ll wait and see.”
All the CNN anchor would have had to do is search “Muslims condemn Paris attacks” on the Internet to find hundreds of instances of the Islamic community condemning last Friday's deadly terrorist attacks in the French capital, including the social-media campaign #notinmyname.
Media writers like The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple and Salon’s Jack Mirkinson condemned Vause’s astonishing display of ignorance. But far too often, journalists are able to pass off casual bigotry as journalistic inquiry.
It’s not just the fear-mongers at Fox News, who exploit terrorist attacks to fuel anti-Muslim hostility with such consistency it’s almost not worth commenting on. It’s the mainstream media, and while Islamophobia rears its head in print as well as online, it is most pronounced on television.
Make no mistake: When producers dream up panel discussions about whether Islam is a violent religion, they aren’t merely “asking the question”: they’re perpetuating prejudice. Yes, a good percentage of Americans hold this view, but the role of us in the media is to dispel such myths -- not legitimize them. Ultimately, presenting tolerance and bigotry as equally valid sides of a balanced debate only ends up fueling bigotry.
Islamophobia in media coverage follows a predictable cycle. When someone commits an act of random violence and information is scarce, first comes the warrantless speculation.
“Journalists, especially TV journalists, love scoops,” says Nathan Lean, a scholar at Georgetown University's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. “So what happens is a lot of them ask leading questions -- they insinuate, infer, hypothesize: ‘Could it have been an attack carried out by Al-Qaeda?’ Then all of a sudden the conversation is dominated by Al-Qaeda.”
This is how NBC's “Today” show ended up running a ludicrous segment on Monday about the possibility of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, using the PlayStation 4 to plot terrorist attacks. It’s how an image of a Sikh man in Canada was doctored using Photoshop, and landed on the front page of La Razón, one of Spain’s largest newspapers. It's also how Time magazine falsely reported that Uber had charged four times its normal rate during the Paris attacks.
In the unfortunate event that an attack is terrorism-related and the perpetrator is a radical Islamist, journalists invariably ask, “Why aren’t Muslims condemning this?” as CNN’s Vause did.
“We still see this expectation that Muslim institutions have to come out and condemn things that you wouldn’t expect other groups have to condemn. There’s the assumption of collective responsibility,” says Corey Saylor, legislative director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group.
“The number one victims of ISIS are Muslims, the notion that somehow we’re not fully committed to combatting that twisted ideology is difficult to wrap your mind around,” he adds.
In fact, CAIR, like countless other Muslim organizations, strongly condemns terrorism whenever incidents occur -- it has done so more than 100 times. In 2014, the group even signed on to an open letter to ISIS, which was penned by 120 Muslim scholars, that meticulously deconstructed the group’s theology.
The vast majority of citizens in Muslim countries hate ISIS as much as any of the flag-waving patriots on Fox News. A recent survey from the Pew Center of 11 countries with substantial Muslim populations shows widespread negative attitudes toward the terrorist group -- in no country did support for ISIS rise above 15 percent. That’s a smaller percentage than Americans who believe in UFOs (21 percent), think there’s a link between vaccines and autism (20 percent) and deny climate change (37 percent). Strong majorities in most of these countries also support the recent airstrikes against ISIS.
There are many differences within the diverse global community of Muslims, which includes Saudi Arabia -- a U.S. ally and possibly one of the most extremist Islamic regimes on the planet -- as well as secular-progressive Turkey and Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, all of which have elected female heads of state. The same prejudice that flattens the nuances that exist within the Muslim community blinds journalists when they are faced with the good Muslims do, and blames them for the monstrous acts of a dangerous minority.
“All the good things Muslims are doing get ignored while the barbaric subset of the Muslim world that claims our faith become our spokespeople,” Saylor says. The open letter to ISIS was largely ignored by the media, but “if you have one crazy guy in a cave in Afghanistan waving a sword, you can guarantee him several news cycles.”
The media’s default of erasing distinctions between terrorists and non-terrorists, and between attackers and victims in the Muslim world is why we are currently in the midst of an insane discussion (if you can call it that) about allowing Syrian refugees into the country.
Nearly all of the half-dozen or so suspects involved in the Paris attacks were born and raised in Europe. And yet, based on the discovery of a single Syrian passport found near the body of one of the suicide bombers, our current discourse is revolving around whether we should turn away tens of thousands of innocent, suffering people because one of them might be a terrorist.
Instead of relying on credible sources of expertise on the matter, the mainstream media more often gives pundits, who have limited information but a lot of opinions, a platform to disseminate misinformation. Instead of giving anti-Muslim activist Pam Geller a means of reaching millions of people with her racist rhetoric, why not talk to someone from the Migration Policy Institute, the country’s most-authoritative think tank on migration issues?
MPI found in a 2015 report that “the refugee resettlement program is the least likely avenue for a terrorist to choose” to infiltrate the country. The reason is pretty obvious once you get to know even a little about the program: The process of gaining refugee status puts applicants in direct contact with the FBI, and they have to undergo a “painstaking, many-layered review” that takes several years.
“It’s not like news organization ask the dumb questions and get them out of the way. We don’t get smarter, better, more informed. When terrorism strikes, the campaign of misinformation repeats itself, time and again.”
Amplifying ignorance isn’t harmless. It’s the reason 29 Republican governors and one Democrat have pledged not to accept Syrian refugees, despite the fact that the Constitution they love to brandish forbids them from doing so.
Whether it’s CNN's Don Lemon asking a respected Muslim lawyer if he supports ISIS or News Corp. Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch suggesting we should give Christian refugees from Syria first dibs on coming in, the most frustrating thing about media coverage of terrorist attacks is that it doesn't get any better over time. It’s not like news organizations ask the dumb questions and get them out of the way. We don’t get smarter, better, more informed. When terrorism strikes, the campaign of misinformation repeats itself, time and again.
As journalists, it’s our job to know better, and do better.