Op-ed: Are the Media Falling Down on Covering Anti-Muslim Bigotry?

Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslim immigrants has gotten extensive coverage during the presidential campaign. So did his disparaging comments about a Muslim Gold Star family. But has that degree of media attention to anti-Muslim bigotry been the rule, or an unusual exception?

Journalists on and off the campaign beat have many reasons to ask themselves that question. They might note, for example, that when someone like the former KKK leader David Duke appears in their sights, as happened most recently in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” remark, the media typically respond by peppering Trump and his associates for statements repudiating Duke or other “white nationalist” supporters. But what happens when Trump is embraced by – or embraces – well-known anti-Muslim bigots?

One possible case study is Stephen K. Bannon, the Breitbart News CEO whom Trump brought on last month as his top campaign official. The appointment led to some critical reporting, mostly focused on Breitbart’s right-wing agenda and its somewhat vague ties with the overt white nationalist movement (the Breitbart ideology overlaps some of the white nationalist agenda, e.g. on immigration, but does not explicitly endorse that movement). But with few exceptions, the reporting on Bannon’s appointment referred only glancingly, if at all, to his and Breitbart’s clear record of anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s an odd omission, since that story is easier to find and far better documented than many of those that were reported.

Under Bannon, Breitbart consistently gave a platform and a megaphone to some of the most strident voices in the Islamophobe chorus. One regular contributor is Pamela Geller, co-founder of Stop the Islamization of America. Another is Frank Gaffney, who tirelessly promotes the threat – ludicrous by any rational judgment – that the United States is in serious danger of being taken over by sharia law. (Among many other far-out statements, Gaffney has said Muslims who observe sharia should be prosecuted for sedition and once declared that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey might be guilty of “misprision of treason” for appointing a Muslim judge.)

At Breitbart, Bannon was not just a facilitator for Gaffney and Geller and others with similar views. He was a cheerleader, expressing admiring support during frequent interviews he hosted on Breitbart radio programs.

“One of the great patriots in this country,” Bannon said about Gaffney at the close of one broadcast just a few weeks before moving over to the Trump campaign. Some months earlier he praised another guest, Roger Stone, as “one of the top political thinkers” – this in a broadcast where Stone ranted about “immigration policies that may turn us into Europe, where hordes of Islamic madmen are raping, killing, pillaging, defecating in public fountains, harassing private citizens, elderly people – that’s what’s coming.”

One would think that reporters would have been swarming over that record after Bannon came to work for Trump. But that didn’t happen, certainly not in any visible way. Nearly a month after Bannon took over the campaign, Mother Jones‘ Josh Harkinson collected and published several pages of excerpts from Bannon’s broadcasts (29 interviews with Gaffney, 18 with Stone, 7 with Geller, by the magazine’s count). But as far as can be determined, other national media gave the story astonishingly little attention, even though the material was easily accessible.

(In an attempt to check out the media response, I searched on Google for eight or nine provocative quotes from Harkinson’s piece. With a single exception, none of them was quoted in any other publication, either before the Mother Jones article appeared or, at this writing, after. Google is not infallible and proving a negative is hard, but that’s pretty convincing, if not ironclad, evidence that other significant news organizations did not bother to look at the Breitbart site or Bannon’s radio broadcasts. The exception, incidentally, was a slam at the Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who as noted at the start of this essay figured in one of the few Islamophobia stories that has gotten traction this year.)

Gaffney and Geller are vociferous Trump supporters, by the way, like numerous others in the anti-Muslim movement. If there has been any significant media outcry for statements from Trump or his campaign disavowing either of them, I have found no trace of it.

The same appears true about retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, to bring in someone connected to the Trump campaign from a different direction. Boykin’s name is fifth from the top on the list of 88 retired generals whose endorsement Trump released, with considerable fanfare, earlier this month. Some stories when the list was announced referred in passing to a few of his controversial past statements, but the coverage generally came nowhere close to showing the full scope and tone of Boykin’s anti-Muslim views.

Boykin has repeatedly called Islam “evil,” argues that it “does not deserve First Amendment protection,” and has urged Americans to “get on the offensive” against the construction of mosques in their communities. One liberal veterans group, VoteVet, did issue a statement  calling on Trump to reject Boykin’s support. But I found no record of any news organization with any degree of visibility having raised that question.

The foregoing are a small handful among a great many cases where news media have paid far less attention to anti-Muslim bias than they would almost certainly give to bigotry against other minorities. Again, it’s not possible to prove something that didn’t happen, but here’s a way to think about it: imagine that Bannon and his radio guests had directed the same steady stream of slurs, in equivalent language and with the same manner and tone, at African Americans or Jews. If that had happened, is there any conceivable doubt that it would have been an enormously bigger scandal and that Bannon would not be running the Trump campaign today?

Whether Bannon or Jerry Boykin or any of the others in the anti-Muslim crew belong in the same basket of bigots as David Duke (to borrow Hillary Clinton’s phrase) is a subjective judgment that readers will have to make for themselves. But however they might answer that question, there is clearly reason for some sober reflection among journalists whether they have done enough to show their audience the nature of this prejudice, the newsmakers who promote it, and the politicians who try to use it for their advantage.  

Arnold R. Isaacs was a long-time reporter, foreign and national correspondent, and editor for the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of “From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America,” online at www.fromtroubledlands.net and has also written two books relating to the Vietnam war.

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