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.