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Jewish Journal

The dangerous world of religion reporting

by Brad A. Greenberg

May 15, 2008 | 2:28 pm

I’ve been there, attacked by fellow Christians for critical articles I’ve written about them.

Religion reporting has proven not only challenging but humorous for a Christian named Greenberg. Christians blame negative stories on my Jewish byline; Jews offer guilt-laden responses to articles that buck the corporate line (or what they wish were); and Muslims, I think, don’t know what to expect.

Once considered a backwater of journalism, the God beat feels to me quite chosen, home to immensely important and interesting news. Religion, after all, is the rubric through which each person uniquely sees the world. Science, education, politics, entertainment—it regularly serves as an undercurrent in these fields. (That was, in fact, part of my pitch at The Sun three years ago when they were looking for a reporter for the newly created position and I was eager to get out of Rialto.) The religion angle also is occasionally relevant when trying to understand peoples’ beliefs in God, their perspectives on the life hereafter and that which gives every day meaning.

Think of the God beat as the Jerusalem of journalism. Seriously.

On this topic, Tim Townsend, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s excellent religion reporter, has an amazing piece in the current Columbia Journalism Review. He discusses the religious origins of the United States, the Dover monkey trial in 2005 and the challenges of sensitively reporting on other peoples’ religious beliefs.

The portion I found most fascinating, however, was the ugly description of what happened when Townsend wrote an article that was considered too favorable to CAIR and got on the bad side of the Little Green Footballs blog community. Here it is (and was):

Just a few weeks ago, in late February, I got an e-mail from the Council on American-Islamic Relations. This was not unusual. Like most beat reporters, I get hundreds of press releases a day. Some I look at, some I don’t. From CAIR alone, I typically receive from one to three e-mails every day, and I had never acted on one before. But this one was different. It involved a mosque I cover in south St. Louis. The CAIR press release said that the FBI had been asked to investigate several comments on two blogs, which threatened a minaret being built outside the mosque.

I had covered the groundbreaking of the minaret—the first to be built in St. Louis. The mayor had been there to praise pluralism and throw a little dirt around for the cameras. In Muslim countries, the minaret is the tower from which the muezzin chants the call to prayer. But as I noted in the original story, this particular 107-foot minaret was symbolic, not functional.

Now I wrote a second story, which was maybe twelve column-inches long and ran the next day on the bottom of B2. It was workmanlike—it did what it had to do for our readers—and nothing more. I wrote that the author of a local blog, Gateway Pundit: Observations of the World from the Heart of Jesusland, had posted some photos of the minaret covered in scaffolding. One of the photo captions read, “Those calls to prayers ought to go over really well with the people of this South St. Louis neighborhood.”

I quoted the imam, who confirmed what I’d already written—that the minaret had no sound system or speakers and would not be used to call Muslims to prayer. I also quoted an FBI spokesman as well as a CAIR spokesman, and then detailed some of the comments that had alarmed Muslims and caused them to inform the FBI.

For example, one visitor to Gateway Pundit had written: “It is really hard on us white, nonMuslims to have to live with these folks taking over our neighborhood and community. Our government helping these people relocate into America’s heartland is like inviting the enemy into your camp. It’s totally disgusting.” On another blog, Little Green Footballs, a visitor named “Amer1can” upped the ante: “Would be a shame if it were to be vandalized or destroyed. Just a shame I tell you….wink wink STL youth.” Another visitor to the same blog added: “I suppose dynamite would be considered an extreme response.”

That was it. Twelve inches. Bottom of B2.

But of course, B2 doesn’t really exist anymore. Not on the Internet. The next morning, the e-mails started coming in at around nine. Many of them complained that I had written a story “planted” by CAIR, which was, I was told over and over again, a front for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and a fundraising arm for other Islamist terrorist organizations. But it was only after my testy e-mail exchange with Charles Johnson, the proprietor of Little Green Footballs, that the real fun began—especially after Johnson posted our correspondence on the blog.

Over the next two days, I received more than one hundred e-mails from Little Green Footballs readers. One suggested I should look into a job at Taco Bell, since I was obviously going to be fired for messing with Johnson. (Little Green Footballs fans credit Johnson with taking down Dan Rather after his 60 Minutes story on George W. Bush’s National Guard service.) Another called me “a self-righteous numskull with the literary prowess of a dodo bird. A dodo bird that dropped out of college and is on drugs.” Still another suggested that there was “no way you could possibly be any more of a dick.”

In two related threads on Johnson’s blog, which ran to nearly 1,500 comments, my photo, bio, and home address were all posted. Someone ran my name through an anagram site and listed the results (Demon Shitty Town, Howdy Mitten Snot, Hindmost Yet Wont). Another participant wrote a song, to be sung to the “Toys ‘R’ Us” theme: “I don’t want to be a St. Louis Post-Dispatch journalist, because if I was. There wouldn’t be heaven after death.” And let’s not forget the haiku:

Tim shills for haters While wearing moderate robes He does not fool us

Besides being called ignorant, arrogant, balding, stupid, rude, fat (my new nickname was Burger Boy), lazy, and incompetent, I was depicted as a Satanic baby. My mother was insulted. I was accused of lying about my academic degrees, having a comb-over, being a paid agent of the Saudi government, and acquiring “numerous social diseases.” I was, apparently, a plagiarist and a terrorist. Someone did a search to see if I was a pedophile. Others stuck with more generalized invective:

Tim Townsend—you’re a smarmy little f—-, aren’t you? [my editing]

Townsend really should have checked on Dan Rather’s career before he messed with Charles.

What a chickenshit little cocksucker. Another journalouse prick with a face for radio.

Finally, there were suggestions that I should be murdered. To his credit, Johnson deleted the death threats and the comments with my address. Blessed are the peacemakers.

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