Why is the New York Times echoing “controversies” ginned up by conservative activists? (More)

Continuing their strategies of capitalizing politically from 9/11 and of riling up their base with fake controversies, conservative activists have ginned up outraged over the purported exclusion of clergy from the 9/11 commemoration in New York City and the alleged exclusion of Christians from the Washington National Cathedral 9/11 commemoration in D.C. Normally, we here at Winning Progressive would not cover this right-wing non-troversy, as we do not want to amplify the efforts of conservative activists to raise more money off of 9/11. However, we feel it useful to address the New York Times article discussing this issue – titled “Omitting Clergy at 9/11 Ceremony Prompts Protest” – as it is a textbook example of how the media propagates right wing talking points and controversies.

The article in question is basically a conservative opinion piece masquerading as shoddy journalism. Key flaws include the following:

First, the article treats the controversy as being factually based rather than simply a “controversy” ginned up by conservative activists.

For example, the article talks of clergy being “omitted” from or “not included” in this year’s 9/11 commemoration. But this year’s commemoration was consistent with every previous official city commemoration. The event consisted of family members of the victims of 9/11 reading the names of those who were killed, interspersed with moments of silence at the time that each World Trade Center tower was struck and fell, and also for when the Pentagon was struck and Flight 93 crashed. In other words, the ceremony is about the people and families who were victimized on 9/11, not a religious event. Portraying such an event as a religious controversy has nothing to do with the facts, and everything to do with the desire of conservative activists to find controversies where there are none. The article makes some reference to actual facts, but does so in the he-said, she-said style that provides the reader with little way to know the truth.

As for the Washington National Cathedral commemoration, the three days of events involved an interfaith benediction that was run by the Episcopal Church, held at a synagogue, and included leaders from the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim faiths. The real objections of the Christian conservatives is not that Christians were excluded, as they were not. Instead, it is that Christianity was being represented by a branch of the faith that they do not agree with, rather than by, for example, Southern Baptists. The article mentions this distinction towards the end, but only after providing the clear idea, unsupported by the facts, that clergy, and especially conservative Christian clergy, are being excluded from 9/11 commemoration ceremonies.

In addition to questionable coverage of the facts, the NYT article parrots the flawed contention that there used to be little controversy over the role of religion in public life:

The second Sunday after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, New York clergy members of many faiths joined elected officials at Yankee Stadium in a city-sponsored memorial ceremony that melded the sacred and the secular, replete with flags, prayers and tears.

Ten years later, any consensus that existed about the appropriate role of religion in public ceremonies marking a monumental American trauma has fallen apart.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has come under attack by some religious and political leaders for not including clergy members as speakers at Sunday’s official ceremony at ground zero on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.


In a nation of unprecedented religious diversity, the United States once managed to navigate religion in public life with relatively generic acknowledgments of the sacred — a tradition often referred to as civil religion.

Ten years ago, the event at Yankee Stadium and a prayer service at Washington National Cathedral attended by President George W. Bush were conducted in that tradition, and they were held with no controversy to speak of. But now, Professor Wolfe said, “the civil religion, those informal kinds of agreements, can’t work if everyone is going to be litigious.”

This is utter nonsense. The article’s framing plays into the conservatives’ attempts to pretend that religion was not a problematic issue in the U.S. until people purportedly started trying to exclude Christian conservatives. But that suggestion has virtually no basis in reality. The reporter seems to have forgotten that less than a year ago conservatives created a religious controversy when they tried to prevent a Muslim community center from being built in the site of a former Burlington Coat Factory in lower Manhattan. And the purported acceptance of “civil religion” in the US ignores the long history of religious faiths of all stripes, often aided by organizations like the ACLU, having to struggle to get even their basic religious freedoms acknowledged.

Next, the NYT article features a lack of balanced coverage, with seven paragraphs of text and quotes from conservatives at the Family Research Council, Fox News, Rudy Giuliani, and this divisive statement from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention:

The planned ceremony only proved that New York was the “epicenter of secularism,” out of step with the rest of America. “We’re not France,” he said. “Mr. Bloomberg is pretending we’re a secular society, and we are not.”

By contrast, a total of one paragraph was dedicated to faith leaders who do not object to New York City’s 9/11 commemoration:

Some prominent religious leaders, including Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, and Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, have said they were not troubled by the format for the commemoration at ground zero.

Finally, the article includes a bit of conservative religious bigotry that, amazingly, is quoted without comment:

The controversy was fueled this week on Fox News when Gretchen Carlson, co-host of “Fox and Friends,” said that because of “political correctness,” the cathedral had included “fringe groups” like Buddhist nuns in the prayer service, but not Baptists.

“We’re going to have a Buddhist nun, which we didn’t even know existed,” she said.

An article seeking to educate its readers would have noted that there are two to four million Buddhists in the U.S. and that nuns have played a role in Buddhism since almost its founding. While it is not surprising that a Fox News commentator would be ignorant of those facts, the New York Times should not be helping to spread that ignorance.

If you’d like to help make sure the New York Times stops amplifying fake conservative controversies, contact the paper’s Public Editor and the reporter who wrote this story, and urge them to provide balanced coverage that educates their readers about what is actually going on, rather than simply parroting the latest right-wing outrage of the day.

(Cross-posted at Winning Progressive)