Sunday, May 30, 2010

Anti-Muslim Memes in Obama 08 Campaign

Lisa Barr
This article is published in Volume 6 of The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society. Its title there is: 
"Contradicting an Internet Rumor via Traditional and Social Media: Campaign Obama’s Anti-Muslim/Pro-Christian Rhetoric"

“Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?
The answer's no, that's not America....”
Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, “Meet the Press,” October 19, 2008
Given the U.S. military attack and occupation of countries with substantial Muslim populations, it seems surprising that only U.S. cinema has been thoroughly analyzed for its anti-Islam content. Jack Shaheen and his book Reel Bad Arabs is the only comprehensive academic treatment this topic has seen. One might ask why the dearth of studies concerning the anti-Islam content in U.S. news media?
This paper attempts to answer that question and advocate for the use of specific mass media performance theories to use in exploring the political news end of this mass media research gap. It focuses narrowly on political news media coverage--specifically upon the failures of U.S. news media to cry foul at overtly ideologically biased, if not outright racist behavior by the successful campaign for president run by and for Barack Obama.

In the final days of the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign season, Bush Administration employee and long-time Republican Colin Powell stated what the campaign had failed to say in the midst of what must be deemed a campaign season steeped in anti-Muslim sentiment. The Republicans cried an accusatory “Muslim!” at Barack Obama, and, the Obama campaign and even the candidate, seemingly screamed “Christian!” in defense--until, that is, the news cycle before the voting itself.
October 19, 2008, on Meet the Press, Former Secretary of State Colin Powell reflected upon his recent visit to Arlington cemetery and his reaction to a Muslim soldier’s tombstone adorned with an Islamic crescent symbol in manner similar to Jews and Christians. Powell’s comments were well-received, and they echoed throughout legacy media--that’s the new word among media scholars for radio, television and newspapers. But his plea for a halt to Muslim-bashing also echoed on YouTube, and Facebook--social media--for days. And his comments are credited as being one of the final nails in Republican John McCain’s campaign coffin:
“But the really right answer is, (so) what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America.... Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America (2008, NBC).”
One could ask why the Obama campaign did not say what Powell said. But the duty to challenge the anti-Muslim meme lay elsewhere. It was journalism’s job to refute the “Obama as Secret Muslim” accusation. In particular, it was the job of those journalists covering not just the entire campaign, but those analyzing the workings of the Obama campaign. The ability of two media performance theories--Cultivation Theory and Spiral of Silence Theory-- to predict this news media failure is explained in the literature review which follows.
“The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment.”
Jacques Ellul (1967) The Technological Society.
American mainstream media, and perhaps the journalism academy from which and to which many journalists flee has frequently been unable to detect problematic media performance—particularly when the media delivery platform is in its infancy. This has proven quite harmful to democratic institutions in the U.S. since the industrial revolution. Jacque Ellul writes about this danger:
“It is the emergence of mass media which makes possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale. The orchestration of press, radio and television to create a continuous, lasting and total environment renders the influence of propaganda virtually unnoticed precisely because it creates a constant environment. Mass media provides the essential link between the individual and the demands of the technological society (1967, p. 22).”
George Gerbner and Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann provide more specific ways of explaining and identifying what Ellul predicted. Ways that mass media can exacerbate media audience members’ fears have been explored exhaustively by George Gerbner and other scholars who have defined a ‘mean world syndrome’ as a key component of their cultivation theory starting in the mid 1970s (1976, Gerbner, Gross). Mass media content, in particular television news concerning violence, can convince viewers the world ‘outside’ is a more dangerous place than it actually is. Lies told in particularly over-heated media coverage of a professed ‘need’ to engage in militarized warfare can seem to snowball on a society, if, as Noelle-Neumann claims, the fear of appearing ‘out of line’ grows among media workers. Of great relevance to the anti-Muslim smears is the accompanying desire for greater protection than is warranted by the (overly) perceived threat to safety explored by cultivation theory scholars.
It might appear that a competent political journalism profession could perhaps inhibit the cultivation of such unfounded fears--could perhaps refute false misconceptions immediately after such propagandistic techniques as misleading anti-Muslim themes are first proffered. Why didn’t political journalism challenge these unfounded fears the U.S. news media cultivated about Islam? The answers lie in an examination of power relationships. Spiral of Silence theory requires scholars to explore where the power lies in a given situation. This is perfectly tailored for the political campaign situation which Crouse explored in his book “The Boys on the Bus.”
Crouse performed a sort of ethnography on the political journalist, noting the extreme fear political journalists experienced--fear that they would have the ‘wrong’ story--one that the majority of political journalists did not have. In a manner similar to the ‘embedded’ journalists ‘covering’ the U.S. military in Iraq, presidential campaign journalists are similarly controlled by the very people they are supposed to be reporting on. For those covering the popular Barack Obama, his mantra of ‘don’t be cynical’ (about his message of change) perhaps made political journalists and bloggers whose livelihood increasingly depends upon their popularity (or lack of controversy) reluctant to raise expected questions.
Given the ‘boys and girls on the bus’ nature of campaign coverage, the fear of being excluded or ostracized from campaign workers who can give a story to a favored reporter seems relevant to consider. This far of isolation from majority opinion is one way Spiral of Silence theory explains self-censorship. There were many opportunities for political journalists to refute the ‘dangerous Muslim’ meme in the 2008 campaign.
But even larger thematic problems with the Obama campaign message went largely unexplored (Carr, 2008). Obama For America’s Facebook campaign organized volunteers by saying that citizen input was steering the campaign. The candidate was quoted on the site: “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington...I’m asking you to believe in yours.” Articles since then have stated that the campaign instead was really of a much more conventional nature, and that the social media was really run like legacy media--a top down operation--as opposed to a grassroots-driven organization.
While political campaign journalists focused on key events in what they termed a citizen ‘phenomenon’ that was sweeping Obama toward the nomination, they failed to investigate Muslim-bashing stories. The selection process for the various anti-Muslim media memes to explore and analyze using Cultivation Analysis Theory or Spiral of Silence theory follows a discussion of key moments U.S. political journalists missed--moments in which an anti-Muslim smear could have been exposed, refuted, and denounced.
“Obama's supporters often say they are being "Swiftboated," casually accepting the idea that being accused of Muslimhood is tantamount to being accused of treason.”
Naomi Klein, March 17, 2008.
“Obama, Being Called a Muslim Is Not a Smear,” in The Nation.
The Obama campaign gently massaged the media frame “Obama as ‘secret’ Muslim” both directly and indirectly. Direct ways this occurred included his denouncement of Reverend Jeremiah Wright for being too similar to Louis Farrakhan--Obama publicly quit that church.
But that is perhaps merely half of the story a good political journalism corps could have explored. As Naomi Klein explained,
“Of course Obama must correct the record, but he doesn't have to stop there. What is disturbing about the campaign's response is that it leaves unchallenged the disgraceful and racist premise behind the entire "Muslim smear": that being Muslim is de facto a source of shame. Obama's supporters often say they are being "Swiftboated," casually accepting the idea that being accused of Muslimhood is tantamount to being accused of treason.”
Journalists are trained to look for predictable patterns of behavior. It is not unusual to expect that a a Constitutional scholar would raise questions about past abuses of the Islamic community, or the Black activist community on Chicago’s South Side. If the candidate himself or his campaign did not bring these issues up, then that is where one would normally expect a political journalist to expend investigative energies. This section explores both the memes explored and ignored by Obama 08 and the political journalism which ensued.
“... the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.”
Presidential Candidate Barack Obama March 17, 2008, Philadelphia, PA
Explicit Tactics of Obama 08 to Recast Him as ‘Christian’
The campaign strategy to overcome the ‘Muslim slur’ that was covered by the Obama 08 press corps consisted of various denouncements of the Obamas’ former pastor--the Reverend Jeremiah Wright--and an exploration of the avowed Christian faith of Barack and Michelle Obama. But before Obama 08 could campaign as fiercely Christian in the Southern states just before the South Carolina primary, the candidate needed to denounce Rev. Wright and did so in a speech on race which was widely acclaimed.
The speech deviated from the prior campaign message--that Jeremiah Wright had distracted people from the campaign’s ‘grassroots nature’--by focusing on the overall anti-African-American racism with which most U.S. citizens are, by now, quite familiar:
“...And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems.... But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races...(Huffington Post, March 18, 2008 Full Text).”
Noticeably absent was any mention at all of Islam, or the deeply anti-Muslim news, editorial, and entertainment media environment navigated by both the Obama campaign and the U.S. political press. This anti-Islam environment ranged from the possibly easily dismissed right-wing talk show hatred casually showered upon a high school teacher to the highly focused anti-Muslim targeting of Islamic academics in the U.S..
An example of the former is Laura Schlessinger’s outrage at a caller’s 16 year old daughter who was visiting a mosque as part of her high school ethics course.
“This is a class on morals. What is the point of going to a mosque? ... You're joking of course. How many Americans have tortured and murdered Muslims. I think you ought to stand up against this class and this teacher. This is despicable. You tell him you are willing to go to the mosque only if it is one that has done its best to rout out terrorists in its midst. Instead of complaining....I am horrified that you would let her go. I am so sick and tired of all the Arab-American groups whining and complaining about some kind of treatment. What culture and what religion were all the murderers of 9-11? They murdered us. That's the culture you want your daughter to learn about (Staff, 2004)?"
Media scholars like Rory O’Connor have perhaps conditioned us to expect such bluster from radio hosts (O’Connor, 2008, pp. 5-6, 115-116). However, the very organized, McCarthy-esque activities of Daniel Pipes has attracted far too little attention both inside American academe and in the main of culture. Writing for The Nation, journalist Kristin McNeil explained how just one year after passage of the “U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T. ACT,” that an ever-growing enemies list was being compiled by law enforcement all over America and that Philadelphia-based ‘Campus Watch’ was creating a lot of press for itself:
“...anti-Arab propagandist Daniel Pipes... posted "dossiers" on eight scholars who have had the audacity to criticize US foreign policy and the Israeli occupation. As a gesture of solidarity, more than 100 academics subsequently contacted the Middle East Forum asking to be added to the list. In response, Pipes has since posted 146 new names, all identified as supporters of "apologists for suicide bombings and militant Islam." He also claims "most of the writers are academics from fields other than Middle East studies (and so are not qualified to judge the work of the academics were listed)." By this standard, he is similarly unqualified, as he is not a professor and his PhD was earned in medieval history. Of the Campus Watch eight, seven are modernists. Hamid Dabashi of Columbia teaches and writes about both medieval and modern Iranian social history (McNeil, 2002).”
Perhaps the media found the hatred documented by CAIR easy to ignore because of the perceived ‘comical’ nature of anti-Islam cartoons in America--an example of this is the BC “I slam Islam cartoon.” Johnny Hart’s 2004 “I slam Islam” cartoon shows a caveman entering an outhouse at night, and then saying, from inside, "Is it just me, or does it stink in here?" Hart denied having anti-Islamic motives in publishing the cartoon, and he was defended by none other than Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau, who said, “Cartoonists are simple folk, not cryptic...Leave Johnny ...alone (Howell, 2007).”
The Obama campaign announcement that the Obamas had left Rev. Wright’s church helped the campaign avoid educating the American public about liberation theology in the Black church, let alone in Central America. Perhaps the Conference at Medillin’s instruction to ‘read from the poor’s book’ could be explained as a metaphor, but not black liberation theology’s “Destroy the white enemy (Moyers, 2008).”
Immediately after quitting Wright’s church the Obamas travelled to South Carolina and the campaign created a brochure with multiple crosses extolling the candidate’s deep commitment to Christianity. However, had political journalists--particularly those from the Chicago Sun Times merely checked their morgues, they would have discovered evidence of the candidate’s true religious roots--in the newspaper’s archives. This was ignored by political journalists, along with other stories from not merely the candidate’s background, but his very backyard, and elsewhere in the nation the candidate aspired to lead.
“We'd go to church for Easter. She (Obama’s mother) wasn't a church lady.”
Barack Obama April 5, 2004, Chicago Sun-Times”
Ignored Aspects of Obama’s Background and South Side Chicago’s Human Rights Issues
The far right media pundits could not have accused Barack Obama of being a Muslim--or having any clear religious identity had they read the interview Cathleen Fasani described in a 2004 column in the Chicago Sun Times. Obama listed a variety of formative influences: his Kenyan’s father’s agnosticism; his paternal grandfather’s Muslim faith, his grandparents’ membership in a Universalist church at the time of Obama’s birth, and, mostly, his mother’s open mind regarding religion:
So, my mother, who I think had as much influence on my values as anybody, was not someone who wore her religion on her sleeve. We'd go to church for Easter. She wasn't a church lady. As I said, we moved to Indonesia. She remarried an Indonesian who wasn't particularly, he wasn't a practicing Muslim. I went to a Catholic school in a Muslim country. So I was studying the Bible and catechisms by day, and at night you'd hear the prayer call. So I don't think as a child we were, or I had a structured religious education.
The failure to emphasize or regularly interview Cathleen Fasani during the Rev. Wright bruhaha shows a great deal about American journalism’s political campaign coverage. Fasani, the 2005 Religion Writer of the Year according to the Religion Newswriters Association, had written the critically noted The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People three years earlier. Perhaps news organizations hoped to avoid controversy given the title of Falsani’s 2007 book, after which she retired from a ten year career with the Sun-Times. But that title, Sin Boldly: A field guide for grace (2008), and her then forthcoming, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, seemingly fit more nearly the ethos with which candidate Obama was raised:
“But my mother was deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world's religions, and talk to me about them. And I think always, her view always was that underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good (Falsani, 2004).”
Perhaps you could fault political reporters’ failure to comprehensively describe a candidate’s embattled religious pedigree. But human rights abuses in the candidate’s newly adopted backyard--particularly when the candidate teaches Constitutional Law seem a very different story indeed. Is it curious that the Obama campaign did not remind Americans of the abuses suffered past and present by members of Reverend Wright’s and Reverend Farrakhan’s flocks?
Consider the history: multi-million dollar settlements paid by Chicago Police for the assassinations of Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton; the later harassment of Fred Hampton, Jr.; the Cointelpro involvement in the Blackstone Rangers/El Rukn Gang--a hard to ignore story, it would seem about drug-running, murders, and a resultant tarnished image for Black Muslims in America. Perhaps, given Americans’ reluctance to look in the mirror at their own human rights abuses, the Obama campaign’s reticence to discuss such issue is perhaps understandable.
But that does not excuse those covering the Obama campaign from exploring these issues and asking the candidate his position about past and present human rights abuses--what better way to gauge what sort of U.S. Attorney the candidate would pick (Jordan, 2008). And there was a hot issue largely ignored by mainstream media--the prosecution of a South Side kid who said he sought to learn about Islam and was imprisoned without an open trial for being a ‘terrorist’ who allegedly wanted to use a ‘dirty bomb’ in Chicago. His family said he merely wanted to learn about Islam--to study overseas as have other formerly Christian converts wanting an ‘authentic’ experience (Cassell 2008, Scheer 2006, Worthington, 2008).
What explains the ‘scary’ or, more often, scant treatment Islam receives in U.S. press? People who voted for Obama, who covered Obama, admired the Eastern pilgrimage of the Beatles after all. Scholar Jack Shaheen says the problem is Islamophobia, which is exacerbated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the false explanations for beginning them--the September 11 attacks by suspects mainly from U.S. ally Saudi Arabia:
“Well, you have 19 Arab Muslim terrorists responsible for the death of 3,000 innocent Americans. 3,000 of us. And they’re Arab Muslims, right? Do their actions represent 1.2 billion Muslims? When we see Catholic priests and other men who abuse their faith and seduce and malign young boys, does that mean everyone in the faith is a child molester? The problem is and continues to be, unfortunately, that we have this “Islamophobia” in our country that everything Muslim is associated with evil. And we have these evil men who did these terrible things and they said they did it in the name of Islam (Koppel, 2002).”
Regardless of the well-documented anti-Islam sentiment in U.S. news media, or a candidate’s reluctance to be seen as Muslim, Barack Obama did not create the environment his campaign navigated. ‘Obama-08’ can hardly be blamed for doing two things which decided the election: getting new voters to the polls, and continuing to reach new or non-committed voters via new media platforms such as the internet, facebook, or myspace. What about the current media environment might change this?
“What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority; in many instances they have seen the upholding of the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberty of the people.”
James Madison, “A Memorial and Remonstrance,” 1785.
Media scholar Robert McChesney notes that ‘professionalized’ journalism was found lacking in its ability to “...really get at problems before they explode...” even at its high point of functionality in the 1950s. His contextualized analysis of the quickly disappearing presence of journalism to monitor government and corporate power at all levels does not romanticize what is left of that profession:
“Our journalism today is deplorable, for the most part. It’s dreadful. People are scared that young people aren’t regular readers of our newspapers. I’d almost be more scared if they were regular readers of our newspapers--certainly consumers of television news, (or) what passes for television news p.4 , 2009).”
Gerbner and Noelle-Neumann perhaps provide the framework for understanding individualized media worker failings within the remaining journalism profession. Gerbner’s work can explain how Campaign 08 occurred in the middle of a period in which U.S. citizens are told to fear the very people their government is annihilating at genocide levels. Noelle-Neumann’s work explains why a very well protected advertising-centric/underwriting-centric news media fails to explain the lethal hypocrisy of the ‘war on terror’ and the criminally false and flawed rationale behind it. McChesney argued in the year following the election campaign that government subsidies are needed to save U.S. journalism. Michael Moore argued months later that the news media needs to start pleasing less powerful readers--normal workers--instead of advertisers or underwriters before bidding ‘good riddance’ to a media that abandoned working class stories (Huffington Post, 9/14/2009 ).
But, increasingly, the critiques of a sociological or rhetorical nature provide perhaps just as much enlightened analysis. And, with journalism profits dropping, the journalism schools dependent upon funds from those outlets will perhaps lessen their grip upon what gets published about journalism. That will only help save free and fair discovery and debate about powerful forces strangling U.S. democracy. Because, not too long ago, a journalism graduate student would have been ‘problematized’ for having quoted the two sources who first laid bare one aspect of the heated 2008 presidential race. Writing in the Monthly Review, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn unpacked such phrases as “Heartland” (white), “hockey mom” (white), “Joe the plumber” (white) and the environment they inhabited:
“In this carnival atmosphere throbbed the omnipresent and not so clandestine campaign drumbeats that the senator from Illinois is a secret Muslim, that because his father was a Muslim, the son is forever a Muslim--assuming, of course, that faith in Islam is disqualifying. In a year of loopy ironies, it took a conservative Republican, retired general, and disgraced Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell, to vigorously call the question, movingly insisting that it should be perfectly fine to be an American Muslim, and a president. In a perfect storm, Powell was immediately accused by white commentators of siding with his race (p. 1 2009).”
But even Ayers and Dohrn miss the larger point of religious discrimination in their otherwise very thorough analysis of a xenophobic campaign season. Not too long ago, journalism graduate students would no doubt fail any assignment for having quoted the authors--so thin was the skin of the 60’s journalists who’d felt Bernardine Dohrn had offended the entire profession by distinguishing between the “bourgeoise press” and the “revolutionary, alternative press” outside an SDS meeting. Old habits die hard. And that is why the problem is bigger than journalism---there are journalism schools also to blame for our current state of affairs. Future researchers should examine the role journalism textbooks and instructors play in fomenting such lethal bias in campaign rhetoric regarding religions routinely regarded as “non-Western.” There are historical, legal, and moral reasons for so doing.
In “Free Thinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby explains that James Madison’s support for government freedom from control hails from French Enlightenment thinkers who debated and wrote the U.S. Constitution. She derides the current ‘culture wars’ based upon a mythical ‘religious’ U.S. history, by quoting Madison:
If Religion be not within cognizance of Civil Government, how can its legal establishment be said to be necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority; in many instances they have seen the upholding of the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberty of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it [liberty], needs them not.”
Absent a journalism academy which confronts its prior practice, and the present journalism environment simultaneously, it seems doubtful that the situation will improve. Doubtful indeed that future political reporters will dodge the campaign public relations themes which exacerbate stereotypical views of religious engagement in U.S. civic society. Scholars must embrace critical analysis from outside the journalism community and journalism academy and apply it to work of the the few critical scholars now ‘accepted’ within the journalism academy. Clearly the voices listened to by the U.S. political reporting class needs expansion. That is where the hope for a non-xenophobic presidential campaign lies. That truly will be change to believe in.
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