Islamophobia and the Op-Ed Pages

Colin Powell rushes in where columnists previously feared to tread

It’s hard to compete with Colin Powell, especially if you’re a small media watchdog group. But the former Secretary of State did in a few sentences what the progressive group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting has been trying to do for months: push back on anti-Muslim media bias, which they term “Islamophobia.”

In his Sunday appearance on Meet the Press, Powell cited the persistent right-wing “Barack Obama is a secret Muslim” rumors as one of the reasons that he is withholding support for Senator John McCain. “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?” Powell asked indignantly, “The answer’s no, that’s not America.”

Maureen Dowd amplified Powell’s comments in her New York Times column today. “It was a tonic to hear someone push back so clearly on ugly innuendo,” she writes. But her praise raises the question—couldn’t someone with a New York Times op-ed column have provided that tonic without Colin Powell’s prodding?

A FAIR report entitled ”’Secret Muslims,’ Open Bigotry” argues that while mainstream press has been quick to contradict rumors of Obama’s faith—he is, in fact, a Christian—reporting has tended to reinforce the anti-Muslim sentiments that make these rumors so politically potent. The report states, “Journalists often accepted the idea that there was something suspicious or bad about being Muslim by referring to the canard as a “smear” (New York Times, 1/17/08; ABC News, 12/5/07), an “unsubstantiated charge” (Washington Post, 6/28/08), or an example of “nasty and false attacks” (New York Times, 1/17/08).”

FAIR especially faults opinion writers for their silence. When Polish elections were tainted by allegations that a presidential candidate was a “secret Jew,” the report points out, the opinion pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlanta Journal Constitution vigorously denounced this anti-Semitism and congratulated Americans for being above such fear-mongering.

But while “secret Muslim” rumors have been circulating for two years, it’s only after Colin Powell goes on television that the opinion pages wake up. Along with Dowd, columns condemning Islamaphobia have appeared in The Concord Monitor , The Washington Post , and The Detroit Free Press . To be fair, CJR seems to have largely fell down on the job, too, though Jane Kim called attention to the issue last week in a post highlighting comments from CNN’s Campbell Brown.

Better late than never. But it’s hard not to read all the editorial plaudits for Powell as something of an indictment of the opinion writers complimenting his courage.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.