Hoyt: Times’ Op-Ed Presented “False Picture”

Clark Hoyt, the New York Times’ public editor, did some reporting (“interviewed five Islamic scholars, at five American universities, recommended by a variety of sources as experts in the field”) and couldn’t find one who agrees with the interpretation of Islamic law presented in a May 12 Timesop-ed by Edward Luttwak.

Hoyt writes: “Op-Ed writers are entitled to emphasize facts that support their arguments and minimize others that don’t. But they are not entitled to get the facts wrong or to so mangle them that they present a false picture.”

The “false picture” in this case, Hoyt writes, was the argument that”any hopes that a President Barack Obama might improve relations with the Muslim world [are] unrealistic because Muslims would be ‘horrified’ once they learned that Obama had abandoned the Islam of his father and embraced Christianity as a young adult,” a “conversion” that Luttwak argued was “an act of apostasy, a capital offense, and ‘the worst of all crimes that a Muslim can commit.’” In other words, Hoyt writes, Luttwak’s thesis was “a double whammy: Obama cannot escape his Muslim history, and a lot of Muslims might want to kill him for trying.”

How did this “false picture” pass muster with the Times’ editors? Hoyt reports:

David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, said Luttwak’s article was vetted by editors who consulted the Koran, associated text, newspaper articles and authoritative histories of Islam. No scholars of Islam were consulted because “we do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors,” he said.

That’s a pity in this case, because it might have sparked a discussion about whether Luttwak’s categorical language was misleading, at best…

Shipley.. said he regretted not urging Luttwak to soften his language about possible assassination, given how sensitive the subject is. But he said he did not think the Op-Ed page was under any obligation to present an alternative view, beyond some letters to the editor.

I do not agree. With a subject this charged, readers would have been far better served with more than a single, extreme point of view. When writers purport to educate readers about complex matters, and they are arguably wrong, I think The Times cannot label it opinion and let it go at that.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.