As many analyses of the Pew data have pointed out, there is a rather direct correlation between those who disapprove of the President and those who believe he is Muslim. From the Times:

“This is an expression of the people who are opposed to Obama having an increasingly negative view of him,” said Andrew Kohut, the Pew center’s director.

The Post posits disapproval as a potential reason for the higher percentage of those believing the president is Muslim.

…the shifting attitudes about the president’s religious beliefs could also be the result of a public growing less enamored of him and increasingly attracted to labels they perceive as negative. In the Pew poll, 41 percent disapprove of Obama’s job performance, compared with 26 percent disapproval in its March 209 poll.

According to the survey, thirty percent of those who disapproved of Obama’s job performance also believed he is a Muslim, significantly higher than the overall average. Political scientist and media critic Brendan Nyhan wrote yesterday, after reviewing the Post’s analysis:

…as Republicans and independents view Obama more unfavorably, they’re likely to be more receptive to negative information about him, including false claims about his religion.

Drawing conclusions from different survey answers can be risky, but it’s probably not too much of a stretch to draw connections here between answers on job approval and the president’s beliefs; Obama and his faith are the central focus of the survey. And the connection appears to be this: the more people dislike Obama, the more likely they are to believe—or at least tell surveyors they believe—he is a Muslim. Islam is either something negative, to be disapproved of, or it’s a suitable label for something of which you disapprove. Either way, Islam=bad.

Cut to the saga of Park51, entangled as it is in the kinds of misinformation, conflation, rumor, heat, anger, and at times rank stupidity that help form and perpetuate that equation. If there is a media failure implied in Pew’s survey, it is not that we didn’t adequately push back against the Obama-is-Muslim meme. We can’t stick cameras outside of the president’s Camp David chapel or get his prayers on the record before he hits the sack. And papers and other outlets are always quick to shoot down the idea when it’s brought up. Including today.

Our failure is that we have sometimes not reported accurately, rigorously, fairly, and with adequate nuance and pushback, on issues that involve Islam. We have allowed the Islam-as-bad idea to fester unchallenged and to grow. And we are now at a point where legitimate connections can be drawn between a president’s disapproval and the inaccurate belief that he is a Muslim.

The “Ground Zero Mosque” debate is an example of where we have failed and are failing in this regard. It is only in the last week or so that a slew of articles are surfacing with desires on correcting the record about simple details like the actual location and nature of the development. The Associated Press has published a fact-check report to counter rumors and assertions about the imam behind Park51. Yesterday, the AP released a much-retweeted memo to its staff titled, “AP Standards Center issues staff advisory on covering New York City mosque.” It advises reporters not to use the phrase, “mosque at Ground zero,” correctly noting that it is a community center and mosque and is not at “Ground Zero” at all.

When criticisms have come couched in extravagant and misleading rhetoric, most papers have offered little pushback outside of the editorial pages. In a report on Republican criticism of the Park51 development, the Times ran Newt Gingrich’s now infamous statement that “building the mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks ‘would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.’” It would not have been ideological editorializing to challenge that assertion, adding, as many have pointed out, that the analogy is extreme and inaccurate. Instead, it was left to stand.

We can’t leave the inflammatory and misleading to stand. We must be as vigilant about correcting the record on all matters of Islam as we have been on the president’s faith. More so. The stakes for him are political; the stakes for Muslim Americans are far greater. From this week’s Time cover story:

…to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country’s most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery.
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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.