Those Sneaky Little Dots

As the editor of a magazine of media criticism, I make it a rule never to edit the words of someone we’re criticizing in such a way that our readers would understand the quote differently if they saw the original context. We don’t want people looking up what we’re criticizing and saying, “Oh–so that’s what they meant.”

Stan Nelson of the Pueblo [Colorado] Chieftain violates this rule in the criticism he offers (10/25/08) of FAIR’s recent report, Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry and Misinformation. Nelson presents this edited quote from our report:

“Why,” asks FAIR, “is it necessary to invoke cultural stereotypes . . .? The widespread assumption in the U.S. media is that people . . . in the Muslim world are fundamentally unlike Americans.”

Nelson goes on to translate “invok[ing] cultural stereotypes” as “pass[ing] cultural information”–and what could be wrong with that? But here’s the full quote from the report:

Why is it necessary to invoke cultural stereotypes to explain why you won’t accept an envelope full of cash after mercenaries kill your child? Or to explain quite normal opposition to being bombed, detained or aggressively searched? Because the widespread assumption in the U.S. media is that people in Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, are fundamentally unlike Americans.

It’s the invocation of cultural stereotypes to explain things that require no explanation that we took as a sign that Muslims are seen as inherently different; leaving out that aspect of the quote fundamentally changes its meaning.

The Chieftain piece also offers this argument for why FAIR’s report on Islamophobia “echoes criticisms of media heard from the so-called religious right”:

It must be recognized, sympathetically, that Muslims face a tough task to decisively distance themselves from cynical killers, like evangelical and fundamental Christians have had to do with, say, David Koresh’s troublesome Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, or Fred Phelps’ questionable, vengeance-stained, judgmental theology.

However, that is exactly what they should do, or face more of the same unfairness–regardless of whether FAIR is there to call it so. Evangelicals and fundamentalists can testify to that.

It’s not clear, exactly, who is calling on “evangelical and fundamentalist Christians” to distinguish themselves from the Koreshes and Phelpses of the world. The general assumption is that groups that do bizarre things like picketing soldiers’ funerals or stockpiling weapons for Armageddon have to answer for their own bizarreness; people who happen to share a religious identity with such people aren’t usually called upon to “distance themselves”–unless, of course, the religious identity is Muslim.

In any case, note that the proper parallel to Muslims having to explain that they aren’t Al-Qaeda is not “evangelical and fundamentalist Christians” needing to do the same for Koresh and Phelps–it’s Christians in general having to do so. Assuming that every Christian, from Jesse Jackson to the Archbishop of Canterbury, probably shares the views of Phelps or Koresh–that’s the same kind of mistake as attributing Osama bin Laden’s views to the average Muslim.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.