By Elliot Adams
The Ground Zero Mosque is the most half-baked political hot-potato currently in circulation. It concerns the proposed building of a community centre in Manhattan by a Muslim organization; which is truly bizarre as it’s planned to be built on legitimately acquired private property a considerable distance away from ground zero, it’s not a mosque (though the group has had one in the same neighbourhood for years), there is already a mosque far closer to the former site of the world trade centre, the people behind it have no connection to the attacks on the world trade centre, the Imam behind it is a remarkably moderate Sufi even by Republican tastes; and of course US law legally protects the freedom of religious assembly. It’s not the most newsworthy issue in that part of New York, or even on that street, yet the US press have given it amazing prominence over the past few months.
The most concerning thing is that the media furore surrounding this non-story seems to be largely originating with, and driven by, Pamela Geller, a conspiracy-vomiting terrorhawk of a blogger who is viciously anti-Muslim. She posts her protracted and bigoted diatribes and conspiracy theories across a range of far-right and end-times blogs, she is also a leading member of Stop Islamization[sic] Of America(SIOA; if you can’t guess what they advocate, consider that one founder encourages people to murder their liberal relatives and all Muslims).
Last December The New York Times published a fairly passive piece on the plans to build the Cordoba community centre. The article covered Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s plans to counter extremism – and quoted the mayor’s office, families of world trade centre victims, representatives of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, the leader of the local Jewish community centre and the FBI (who have worked with the Imam in the past) all giving their support to the community centre and Imam Feisal.
Even Fox News was largely positive when in the same month Imam Feisal’s wife was interviewed by Laura Ingraham, a guest host on Fox news’ O’Reilly factor mainly notable for her past homophobic rhetoric and an attempt to hinder Democratic Party voters. But Ingraham remained supportive of the project, saying she couldn’t find many people who have a problem with it and saying “I like what you’re trying to do,” even though she does seem to imply that American-Muslims aren’t properly ‘Americanized’.
Then the story all but disappeared from the press for about six months, as no one except Geller and a few other bloggers really cared where the Cordoba community centre was built – and rightly so.
That is until May of this year, when an NYC community committee unanimously approved the project and Geller’s SIOA launched it’s campai
gn to stop what she was now calling the “Monster Mosque” that will be built at ground zero “just as Al-Aqsa was built on top of the Temple in Jerusalem.” It is important to remember that this woman is either delusional or a habitual liar; she has variously claimed that President Obama was involved with a crack whore, was a Pimp, that he wears gang colours in the white house, that Malcom X is his real father(based on some kind of neo-phrenology) and that she has pornographic photograph’s of Obama’s mother.
What the ultra-conservative factions of the US press did next though was truly revolutionary outside the box thinking. The box in question is the one clearly labelled ‘Journalistic Integrity.’
They fully adopted those like Geller and the way in which they framed the story. Notably for once, or at least first out of the starting block this time, was Andrea Peyser of the New York Post in her column, ”Mosque Madness at Ground Zero.” Peyser quotes Geller extensively and unironically describes her SIOA group as a “human-rights group.” It’s the first article I can find that depicts the ‘Monster Mosque’ in the way that bloggers from the far-right had been framing the story, as a despicable attack on America.
The rest of the conservative media quickly fell into line, the Washington Examiner called it “a second attack on the World Trade Center” and Fox News was almost beautiful in how much it’s coverage got behind bigots like SIOA, it’s like watching them pick a fight with the idea of journalism itself – media matters covers this far better than I could hope to. The more moderate conservative news outlets and other mainstream organisations were forced to now respond to this with dissent, or reporting both sides of the ‘dispute’, but by doing so were also framing the story within terms of a entirely manufactured controversy.
Geller herself put in a few more forays into the press, including a radio appearance with Sean Hannity, but her part in this was largely that of the vanishing mediator and she had already succeeded. The story in the US press has been delineated into this simulation of a fake controversy to such an extent that now even Obama’s weak statement, and re-statement, that those behind the Cordoba community centre had the right to free religious assembly is now read as both an appeasement to Islamic extremists and then a back-tracking of his comments.
This whole debate that has played out in the media is just too much hyperreality in the headlines for me – if you’ll forgive the jargon wankery – there was simply nothing newsworthy about it before the press picked up Geller and her ilk’s touting of the proposed Islamic community centre as something it wasn’t. To abuse a Harmsworthian proverb, it wasn’t a man-bites-dog story, or even a dog-bites-man story; it was a conspiracy-theorist-looks-at-dog-and-claims-it’s-a-badger-poised-to-bite-all-you-hold-dear story.
One of the few sociology studies I tolerate is Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics, a look at the media hype and social reaction to the mods and rockers brawls of the 60s. In it he proposes a ‘Deviancy Amplification Spiral’ to describe the way in which media hype of behaviour increases the intensity of that behaviour, attracts people expecting that behaviour and consequently intensifies media hype – closing a cycle of amplification. But what we have here is a ‘Bullshit Amplification Spiral’, completely devoid of any real event or behaviour in the first place, the press has just been taking every comment and statement and forcing it into the polemic framework of a debate that never really existed outside of the mind of one hate dribbling blogger.