Sunday, January 28, 2007

Sins of omission

Questions about what isn't there are hard ones for the desk to raise -- especially when they arise on the editorial page, whence come thunderbolts of concern, alarm and bluster. But the flip side of "opinion is free" is still "facts are sacred," and when an editorial goes beyond what's known from the news pages, it needs to be held to account. That means saying not just what the paper knows but how it knows it.

The assertion challenged here could be right. We don't know, and that's an editing failure. Let's have a look:

An act of hate?
Large fight plus racial slurs equals trouble at Guilford

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines a hate crime this way: "A criminal offense committed against a person, property or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin."

Until the details of a fight on the campus of Guilford College involving Muslim students and football players become clearer, it's wrong to assume a hate crime occurred. But if the facts reported by the victims and some of the witnesses bear out, this small Quaker campus has a serious problem on its hands.

This paper was quick to board the guilty-till-proven-innocent bandwagon after the Duke lacrosse case erupted, so it's nice to see it counseling against hasty assumptions. But it's making a new assumption here: How do we know the students are Muslims?

Once again, we don't know that they're not. But that's the point. The readily available reporting -- from the Raleigh and Greensboro papers, the AP and the NYT -- says they're Palestinian. Two of them went to a Quaker school in Ramallah (known as a traditionally Christian town when HEADSUP-L summered there). We know that the attackers are said to have used "racial slurs" and to have called the Palestinians "terrorists." And we know that Muslims in the area have expressed concern. None of which answers the yes-or-no question: Do we know that the complainants are Muslims?

Religion isn't a necessary element of "ethnic slurs." People from a big swath of southern and southwestern Asia have been smeared with the "terrorist" brush on the basis of appearance and accent, no matter their religion (and it's worth noting that the group that pioneered the mass hijacking was founded by a Palestinian Christian). And a hate crime, as the lede notes, can involve ethnicity or national origin as easily as religion.

If this was a youthful brawl where tempers flared, that's bad enough. But if there's evidence of deliberate violence against Muslims, charges against those who committed it should be leveled swiftly.

Well, yeah. And if it was deliberate violence against Palestinians, wouldn't that qualify too?

Somebody on the desk might have asked the how-do-we-know question. And somebody might have answered it. But the paper, like many in its circulation area, doesn't have a very good record at sweating the details between language, ethnicity and religion when dealing with that part of the world. The editorial needs to be open about how it knows what it knows. Opinion is free, but facts are where opinions come from. And facts are a pretty big deal.


Blogger Strayhorn said...

Keep your eyes on the Guilford story. The meta-meaning mavens are all in town, assigning societal values to something that may or may not have happened.

The Christian Science Monitor is first out of the gate, saying the incident shows how much American distrust Muslims.

But let's not bash just the ol' CSM for writing the wrap-story of a trial that hasn't even gotten a court date yet. Today's Greensboro paper notes that NYT and CBS are in town as well. I'm sure they will provide hand-wringing entertainment as well.

You would have thought that they might have learned from the Duke lacrosse case, but NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

9:03 AM, January 29, 2007  

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