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Would four blocks away be far enough?

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I was watching The Colbert Report the other night when a picture of my local mosque flashed across the screen. Colbert was covering a story that the Murdoch-owned New York Post had broken a few days earlier: a man had barged into the mosque during a service, cursed at the congregants, pissed on their prayer rugs. ‘No one can pray now,’ someone had told the paper. ‘The rugs are completely soiled. It was disgusting.’

So far, so bad. But Colbert (who isn’t a journalist) didn’t know that the Post journalists (it had taken three of them to file the 168-word story) had got it almost entirely wrong. The man – a certain Omar Rivera, who was just then nearing the end of a five-day drunk – was far too intoxicated to know where (and, quite possibly, who) he was. Whatever he may or may not have been shouting had nothing to do with Muslims; no prayer rugs had been soiled or damaged; Rivera hadn’t even gone inside of the building. ‘This act was not an intentional act aimed to desecrate the mosque in any way,’ a spokesman for the mosque has said. ‘He did not come onto the premises. There was no trespass, and we’ve relayed that to the NYPD and the District Attorney’s office. We do, however, think that Mr Rivera needs help. And we do offer him help if he desires.’

I thought of Mr Rivera again on Saturday as I made my way down to Manhattan’s Ground Zero, passing half a dozen representatives of the English Defence League, two Mennonite choirs and a great many reporters on my way to the main vigil. When I got to Park Place, the site of the proposed Islamic community centre or, as the opposition would have it, the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’, journalists outnumbered protesters by about ten to one. Every so often there’d be a scrum of television cameras; somewhere inside it, two or three people would be arguing, nose-to-nose. ‘The Constitution’s not a suicide pact,’ someone would say. Or: ‘It’s not a mosque, sir. But even if it were, where, exactly, would you like the mosque to be? Would four blocks away be far away enough? Would ten blocks do it? Could you show me on this map, sir, where exactly should this mosque be?’

Earlier in the day, a man had torn a few pages out of the Koran and set them on fire. The journalists flocked, but the man refused to answer their questions, or give his name, and, escorted by a couple of police officers, he disappeared into the local PATH Station for a train to New Jersey. Two 14-year-old girls held their own against a series of anti-mosque activists. A little while later, I ran into a former student of mine, who’s now on the staff of the Post. She introduced me to her companion, who works for the Daily News. Rivals, in theory, they’re joined at the hip; travelling everywhere and reporting everything together, in case one should get hold of something the other missed. This seems, to me, a waste of her talents, and his. But I guess it’s how journalism works these days, and also why it doesn’t.

Comments on “Would four blocks away be far enough?”

  1. Geoff Roberts says:

    I’m not too sure how the two parts of your entry tie together. They don’t have to, of course, it’s just my wish for some internal consistency. Are you telling us that whatever the story, the media get it wrong? Or that the media make things up as they go along?

  2. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Ground Zero Churches:

    Two are Episcopal (Church of England). St. Paul’s Chapel, a slightly fussy mid-eighteenth-century version of St Martin-in-the-Fields, with a large adjacent graveyard, faces Ground Zero. The graveyard of Trinity Church, three blocks from Ground Zero at Wall Street and Broadway, holds the remains of Alexander Hamilton. It’s a wonderful sunny little spot to eat your sandwiches at lunchtime. There used to be a small Greek Orthodox church next to the World Trade Center (I think it may have been destroyed); when I worked in the neighbourhood, every afternoon it played a mournful recording of a church bell being tolled.

  3. I don’t think the reporters made the first story up; I just think they didn’t report it very well. Or so it seems, given the followup. As for the tie-in: These were just my impressions, really. But I was struck by how manufactured the rallies (not the vigil) were. The media’s collapse isn’t just about the ways in which we obtain information. It’s also about the way that increasingly – shockingly – shoddy coverage affects and/or creates the events themselves. (EG, the Florida pastor who decided to not burn his Koran after all, byt hijacked the news cycle for weeks on end). Does that make sense?

    • Geoff Roberts says:

      Yes, thanks for the explanation. Maybe I didn’t read carefully enough, but it seemed at the time that the two items were ony vaguely connected. The coverage on that Floridan pastor has been huge, partly because the media don’t want to be caught out if something big (in the way of a story) blows up. All round the world, reporters are waiting for angry groups of Moslems to attack a US Embassy, simply because one bigot is trying to get his name in the headlines. The trouble seems to be that reporters don’t have time or energy to actually check FACTS any more. They simply mail off their pictures and text and move on. So they are really not completely to blame – it’s the Murdochs of the world who try to reduce everything to a five-word headline.

  4. outofdate says:

    Christopher Hitchens of all people once made the same point about ‘Rage Boy’, a picturesque Kashmiri who was forever being shown in closeup to suggest a cast of thousands: http://www.slate.com/id/2169020/

  5. Thomas Jones says:

    Another way the 24-hour news cycle eats itself, from a piece in the Guardian on the 10th anniversary of the Columbine shootings:

    The stories were repeated, too, by traumatised students who drifted towards the television cameras stationed in a park across the street from the school. We could not guess that these students did not know Harris and Klebold – this was a school with 2,000 students – and were, to a large extent, repeating things they were themselves picking up from the television coverage.

  6. Thanks for providing the opportunity to clarify, Geoff. This pastor – such a non-story; a redneck Jesus freak with 50 followers? But then, the evening news in my country has devolved to the point of: “Look, a kitten with three paws!” gets pride of place. It’s horrifying. And seeing Geert Wilders on the streets of my city is pretty horrifying, too.

  7. Geoff Roberts says:

    Well, Alex, we’re getting used to seeing and listening to the wierd tales of Islamophobes and their kind in Europe. Wilders is the latest in a line of hyper-motivated rabble-rousers. Ever since the Turks reached Vienna …. Some have imploded, although Le Pen and his daughter still make waves in France. Fortyn was murdered Amsterdam, Haider harikiried in Austria (that’s an interesting tale in itself) and the Danes have their own special proponent in Westergaard. (A special pseudo-liberal version.) Sarkozy focusses this time on the Roma, Sarrazin in Germany burbles on about a ‘Jewish gene’ making them 15% more intelligent (you think I’m kidding?) than the average German, who is dying out because they don’t breed as fast as the Muslims. To me, Pastor Jones is a minor curiosity. What bothers me is the growing chorus of Social Darwinism that surely originates in the Eugenics movement and which Wilders and co. use as ammunition against all Muslims, regardless of their belief. Who was Wilders visitung? Ms Palin?

  8. Yes, I know. But the situation here’s been quite different, in respect to Muslims at least. I’m not saying that we don’t have our own fascists; just that it was odd, seeing one of yours on the streets of my city! (Also, it’s worth pointing out that Fortuyn was killed by an animal rights activist. But, according to Dutch people I spoke to at the time – and those of European and North African descent were in agreement about this – the first thoughts in people’s minds were along the lines of “Christ, I hope it wasn’t a Muslim who killed him.”)

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