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August 13, 2008

EDITOR'S NOTE: Obama the Muslim and other front-page calamities

For many people interested in serious, high-quality journalism, News Corp. honcho Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of The Wall Street Journal last year was a calamity. The Journal, long known for a conservative bent on its editorial page, also happened to be a fine news source — ambitious, broad in scope and, for the most part, fair. 

Because of this reputation, it was also said that the Journal would survive its New Age, and perhaps even thrive in it. Paradoxically, the hard economic reality of print gave cause for optimism at the Journal: As Michael Wolff wrote in Vanity Fair in September, Murdoch — by investing so heavily in a dying medium — may be the last best hope for print, despite a business-lifetime of assault on actual journalism. Many others, of course, said the News Corp. name would immediately tarnish the Journal beyond repair. 

Murdoch has come to symbolize greed’s wrath on the news business. His Fox News Channel is right-wing spin at its most concise: A post-Limbaugh daily parade of lies, mischaracterizations and false accusations, couched in an arrogant, knowing delivery and presented, calamitously, as “news.” Fox News has no television equivalent — one must assume it’s because there remain standards for some in the 24-hour news cycle — and, dutifully, it waves this flag with perverse pride, arrogant and knowing. It is a joke to thinking people, an insult to those who pay attention and a security blanket to those who steadfastly refuse actual facts for another, more forgiving set. 

Given this context, Saturday was a banner day for The Wall Street Journal. That was the day the newspaper dove headfirst into the Murdoch muck.

On the front page, just above the fold, was a photograph of Barack Obama entering a stadium tunnel, slapping the hands of the faithful in Berea, Ohio. Immediately below the photo, this headline: “Muslim Land Joins Ranks of Tigers.” The pairing presents itself as a unit just above the fold. Four times — twice in the photo caption and twice in the headline and sub-headline for the unrelated story below — appear variations of the words Muslim and Islam. 

Perhaps these were two utterly newsworthy stories, and we shouldn’t assume their placement diabolical? 

The Obama photo teased a story on page A4 about a campaign volunteer — a Muslim-outreach coordinator — stepping down amid questions raised by a Journal reporter about connections to Islamic groups. The story relied in part on an “Internet newsletter” called “The Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Report,” which had reported a supposed connection to what we’re to assume is a dangerous Islamic group. The website, according to the executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (writing in the Chicago Tribune), “lists virtually every major American Muslim organization as being part of a global Islamist conspiracy. It is mind-boggling how seamless it is for websites harboring a blatantly anti-Muslim agenda to break into the mainstream media.” 

So this is a front-page, above-the-fold photo tease in The Wall Street Journal: An Obama volunteer leaves amid questions raised by some anti-Islamic website? 

Below it, the “Muslim Land Joins Ranks of Tigers” story is about Turkey embracing a free-market economy and finding some financial success. Although an interesting story, it has no specific time peg. It is what’s called an “evergreen,” a story that could run at any time. 

Obama, if nothing else, has brought out the creativity of the insane right wing. They work in a not-so-deft code, which Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is now promoting on its front page. Drop words like Islam or Muslim near a photo of Obama and the kind of Americans who buy News Corp. products as legitimate news shudder and prattle like coked-up hookers chewing their teeth until they get out of jail. 

It is sad and pathetic to those of us who pay attention, sure, but how many people read right over this and subconsciously internalized some incoherent message about Obama being a dangerous Muslim? 

Right-wingers have Obama in a sort of puzzle box right now: If he has to deny he’s Muslim, he has to bring up being Christian, a storyline that includes similarly vague premonitions about his “radical” black Christian pastor. Never mind that the feigned outrage over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright last summer should’ve planted in everyone’s brain the quaint notion that Obama is not actually a Muslim. 

No, the black guy’s too clever for that, ’merica. Watch out. Embrace your fear. And subscribe now, while the news is still cheap.