Friday, December 28, 2007

Gillespie: Corporate News Outlets Ignore Interfaith Appeal for Peace

Corporate News Outlets Ignore Interfaith Appeal for Peace

by Michael Gillespie


Des Moines, IA – The Iowa Chapter of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) and The Shalom Center, headquartered in Philadelphia, teamed up recently to promote the Interfaith Peace Committee (IPC)’s call for peace in the Middle East and campaign against a U.S. attack on Iran. The IPC’s statement, "A Pax on Both Our Houses" (pax is Latin for peace), calls on the government of the United States to “end all actions, threats, plans, or support for war against Iran,” and for the religious authorities of Iran to “end all threats against the existence of Israel and all denials of the historical truth of the Nazi Holocaust, and to make clear that Iran will not support violence against civilians by its own or other forces, and to reaffirm for the future their prohibition of any effort to seek nuclear weapons for Iran.”

The statement also calls for “the governments of both nations at once to open direct talks on all issues of mutual concern, looking toward a mutual peace” and for “the American government to move forward in the spirit of humility and generosity, rather than arrogance and domination, toward a broad peace settlement in the entire Middle East, including an end to the occupation of Iraq, peace between Israel and Palestine and all the other states in the region, and a major international effort to protect human rights and promote grass-roots economic development in the region.”

That the statement makes no mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, nor of any plans for a nuclear-free Middle East, nor of an end to Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory no doubt made endorsement easier for many of the American Jewish signatories, the list of which includes at least 25 Rabbis. Despite its glaring omissions and lack of specificity, this statement by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious leaders constitutes an important and timely appeal to civil rulers to step away from the brink of a catastrophic wider war and choose peace. It proposes real and immediate if somewhat vaguely defined alternatives to neoconservative militarism, and it proves that Christians, Jews, and Muslims can reason together, compromise, and agree to move forward together toward common goals.

“A Pax on Both Our Houses” has been endorsed by more than 60 nationally and internationally recognized Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders including Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, USA; Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ; Rev. James Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church; Rabbi Or N. Rose, Associate Dean, Rabbinical School of Hebrew College; Rabbi Shelia Peltz Weinberg, Institute for Jewish Spirituality; Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor of Tikkun; Imam Madhi Bray, Executive Director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation; Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North America; and Sheila Musaji, Editor of The American Muslim. Many of the leaders who signed the statement, including both Bray and Mattson, did so in their capacities as leaders of the organizations they serve.

The Shalom Center, which describes itself as “a network of American Jews who draw on Jewish tradition and spirituality to seek peace, pursue justice, heal the earth, and build community,” was founded in 1983 “to address the raging nuclear arms race from a Jewish perspective.” Hoping to gain the attention of mainstream media news organizations and presidential candidates, the Shalom Center’s director, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, partnered with the Iowa Chapter of the MFSA, which purchased a full page advertisement in the December 20 edition of the Des Moines Register. Waskow traveled to Des Moines for a press conference on December 19 to put the call for peace before the public and the 2008 presidential candidates campaigning in Iowa.

“A Pax on Both Our Houses,” a very significant interfaith call for peace in the Middle East, quickly and easily garnered support among leading progressive political, social, and religious organizations in Iowa. Vernon Naffier, President of the Progressive Coalition of Central Iowa, endorsed “A Pax on Both Our Houses.” So did the Catholic Peace Ministry; the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) of Iowa; and the Board of Church and Society, Iowa Annual Conference, United Methodist Church.

Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) sent an aide, Margaret Vernon, to the press conference to read a statement favoring diplomatic engagement with Iran. Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie attended the press conference and by all accounts delivered a moving statement of support for peace in the Middle East. In addition to Waskow, Cownie, Vernon, and Naffier, also speaking at the press conference were Dr. David Drake, former Clerk of the Des Moines Valley Friends Meeting and a member of the Iowa Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility who recently returned from a two week visit to Iran sponsored by the Fellowship for Reconciliation; Inez Ireland, on behalf of UMC Bishop of Iowa Gregory Palmer; Jeffrey Weiss, representing AFSC Iowa; and Eloise Cranke, representing MFSA Iowa.

The only people invited who didn’t bother to show up for the press conference were the reporters.

Given that this interfaith effort to prevent an attack on Iran comes at what may be a crucial moment during a war in which religion plays a far more complex role than in the past, during a time when religion and theology are finding dramatically increased expression in public life and in the political arena and in ways that directly impact political decision-making at the highest levels of government, the evident indifference of so many mainstream media organizations to the Shalom Center/MFSA Iowa press conference in support of “A Pax on Both Our Houses” seems almost inexplicably counterintuitive.

Rev. Chester Guinn of the MFSA said he personally delivered the group’s press release about “A Pax on Both Our Houses” and invitation to the press conference to the Des Moines Register, to local television and radio stations, to the Associated Press (AP) including a personal e-mail to Mike Glover, Iowa Statehouse Correspondent and Chief Political Writer for the Des Moines bureau of the AP, and to CNN. Yet not even one representative of the local mainstream media news organizations, print or broadcast, showed up for the press conference. Only one national mainstream media news organization showed any interest whatsoever; a New York Times reporter listened to the news conference via telephone.

Guinn said he feels that mainstream media have decided to divert the public’s attention from the war/peace issue to domestic concerns.

“If a sentence or two appears in a New York Times article reflecting that Iowans still regard the Middle East war issue more important that domestic issues, we will be very pleased,” said Guinn.

And despite their concerted efforts that’s about all these would-be peacemakers got from corporate media. On December 20, the New York Times published a four-sentence article headlined "Religious Leaders Call for Talks with Iran" in the National Briefing section. The article did not name any of the organizations involved nor any of the organizers or signatories. The nation’s self-described newspaper of record buried its dismissive note, less than 100 words about an important interfaith initiative in behalf of peace, on page 24.

Guinn’s and others’ concerns about efforts by mainstream news media organizations to downplay public interest in the crises in the Middle East and the war in Iraq in particular are well founded according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the nation’s most prominent media watchdog group. A FAIR Media Advisory dated 12/19/07 is titled “War Is Over--Say the Pundits: But it’s media, not voters, who seem to have lost interest in Iraq.” FAIR reports that, “To hear many in the mainstream media tell it, the Iraq War is of diminishing importance to American voters. But the evidence for such a shift in the electorate is thin at best--suggesting that journalists and pundits are really the ones who would rather not talk about Iraq as we head into an election year.”

Mainstream media news organizations’ apparent disinterest in and indifference to interfaith or multireligious efforts in support of peace come into sharper focus when considered against the backdrop of the cacophony of Jewish and Christian Zionist voices who enjoy ready access the nation’s largest and most widely-read, -viewed, and -listened to print and broadcast news organizations while promoting war.

John Hagee, pastor of the 19,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, is the author of a book titled Jerusalem Countdown in which “he argues that a confrontation with Iran is a necessary precondition for Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ,” according to Sara Posner’s August 2006 article for Alternet. “In the best-selling book, Hagee insists that the United States must join Israel in a preemptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West. Shortly after the book’s publication, he launched Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which, as the Christian version of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he said would cause ‘a political earthquake,’” wrote Posner. An on-line archive search reveals that Hagee has been featured or quoted in at least ten articles (totaling more than 8,500 words) published in the New York Times since 1996. Other Christian Zionist leaders and supporters of Israel, including Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, have enjoyed similar access to the nation’s newspapers and broadcast news outlets. An article by Elizabeth White appearing in the Houston Chronicle and others newspapers on December 23 reported that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister whose meteoric rise in the polls has made him a serious contender for the 2008 Republican nomination, had that Sunday preached to more than 5,000 worshipers at Hagee’s church in San Antonio. Huckabee’s candidacy has been endorsed by Hagee and by Tim LaHaye, author of the best-selling Left Behind series, Christian Zionist propaganda disguised as poorly-crafted fiction. LaHaye has been accused of promoting theocracy by Theocracy Watch, a project of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP), located at Cornell University. Both Hagee and LaHaye have been criticized for overtly anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Leading Jewish neoconservative commentator Norman Podhoretz also enjoys ready access to mainstream media news outlets. His advocacy of U.S. military action against Iran has received wide attention in the mainstream media. On May 30, the Wall Street Journal published a commentary by Podhoretz titled, “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it.” Podhoretz, a foreign policy advisor to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign for the 2008 Republican nomination, is one of the signatories of the “Statement of Principles” of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Podhoretz was awarded the President Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a U.S. president can bestow on a civilian, by George W. Bush in 2004.

The difference in mainstream media news organizations’ treatment of religious voices promoting peace, compared to the coverage accorded those promoting uncritical support of Israel, vilifying Islam and predominately Arab and Muslim nations, and promoting U.S. military action against Iran, could hardly be more stark or more obviously a threat to a society that values social stability, racial harmony, and its long tradition of religious pluralism.

An article by Allan C. Brownfeld in the January 2008 issue of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs calls attention to the dangerously hyperbolic rhetoric of the Jewish far-Right. “In certain Jewish circles,” writes Brownfeld, “today’s world is being compared to 1938, just before the Nazi assault on Poland began World War II. An April conference in New York entitled ‘Is it 1938 Again’ featured such speakers as Norman Podhoretz, Alan Dershowitz, Hillel Halkin and Malcolm Hoenlein.”

Brownfeld notes that, “In a recent Commentary essay [Podhoretz] depicted President Ahmadinejad as a revolutionary, ‘like Hitler … whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it … with a new world order dominated by Iran.’”

“‘I pray with all my heart,’ Podhoretz concluded, that President Bush, ‘will find it possible to take the only action that can stop Iran from following through on its evil intentions toward both us and Israel,’” writes Brownfeld.

“Not only are these individuals and groups promoting a pre-emptive war against Iran completely unrepresentative of American Jewish opinion, but they are advocating a policy which would be harmful to the interests of Israel, the U.S., and the larger world. Hopefully, sanity will prevail and these wolf-criers with an agenda will be isolated as the extremists they are,” writes Brownfeld.

Many mainstream media news organizations were duped by falsified intelligence reports and overawed by the jingoistic excess that characterized the Bush administration’s slick public relations campaign designed to incite Americans’ patriotic fervor in support of the rush to war in and occupation of Iraq.

During a Q & A session after his presentation at a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) conference at Iowa State University’s Greenlee School in February 2007, this reporter asked Richard Doak, a then-recently retired senior member of the Des Moines Register editorial board, why press coverage of the Bush administration’s case the invasion of Iraq proved to be such a fiasco. Doak’s reply included his frank admission that, “We were intimidated. Reporters didn't question the administration's claims.”

Doak gets points for honesty and candor in responding to that question, but some still recall that in 2003, in the months after Rachel Corrie was run over and crushed in Rafah, Gaza, by a 60-ton armored Caterpillar D-9 bulldozer operated by the Israel Defense Force (IDF), the editorial board that Doak headed reneged, without notification or explanation, on a promise that the Corrie family’s op-ed piece about Rachel’s death would appear in the Des Moines Register. Such callous disregard for the grieving Iowa family shocked most who learned of it. In any case, Doak’s answer doesn’t begin to adequately address the enormously damaging and still widening credibility gap at the heart of Americans’ well-documented distrust of and lack of respect for professional or, more accurately, corporate journalism and mainstream media news organizations today.

That the Bush administration’s effort to turn the nation’s major news organizations into cheerleading squads for an ill-conceived, illegal, unjust, unnecessary, unwinnable, disastrously counterproductive, and cripplingly expensive preventive war of choice in Iraq was so largely successful is arguably one result of a more general collapse of ethical standards and norms in professional journalism associated with decades of consolidation in corporate media and the consequent exclusion of independent voices from the public discussion. Almost five years after the invasion of Iraq, most mainstream media news organizations seem to be as studiously disinterested in interfaith initiatives as ever and equally indifferent to the concerns of citizens, community leaders, and community organizations involved in various peacemaking initiatives. In Iowa, a well-established pattern reflects that disinterest and indifference.

The Iowa Dialog Center (IDC) hosted its Annual Friendship and Dialog Dinner, an interfaith event, on October 10 at the Embassy Suites on the River in Des Moines. About 75 people attended. The IDC had sponsored a trip to Turkey for 11 Americans, mostly Iowans, mostly people with some connection to churches and other Christian religious organizations. One of those who went on the trip, Rev. Karen Parker, a recently retired Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pastor and former assistant to the Bishop of the Pacifica Synod, presented the keynote address at the dinner. Later, another of the travelers talked about his experiences during the two-week visit to Turkey, and there was a sad, funny, and instructive moment during the Q & A that followed. Apparently unaware who had provided the meal he had just finished, one of the dinner guests bestirred himself to ask, “Where are the voices of the moderate Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11?” The speaker, one of the clerics who had traveled to Turkey with the IDC, looked mildly embarrassed. He paused, smiled, and replied saying that the question was “very similar to one some of our Turkish hosts asked of us.” Many in the audience politely attempted to stifle their laughter.

Mainstream media news organizations all too often traffic in stereotypes and ignorance. The unthinking guest at the IDC dinner who asked about moderate Muslims was parroting a question--a misleading complaint, really--that he, like all of us, has heard again and again because it has rolled off the mainstream media conveyor belt for years: “Where are the moderate Muslim voices?” Far better questions would be: “Where is mainstream media news coverage of moderate Muslim voices?” “Where is mainstream media news coverage of local activities in support of tolerance, interfaith conversation and cooperation, peace, and social justice?” And, “Where is mainstream media news coverage of the many voices, organizations, and activities at local, state, regional, and national levels representing the sentiment of the vast majority of Americans, the 70 percent who want the war in Iraq brought to an end?”

It's no wonder some of our country’s allies and would-be allies, aghast at the arrogance and exclusivist zealotry that has characterized our U.S. Middle East foreign policy since 9/11--though the serious imbalance in U.S. Middle East foreign policy was evident long before that tragic day--are now investing in non-profit organizations at the local, state, and regional levels in cities across America in a desperate attempt to engage and educate Americans outside the Washington beltway through interfaith conversation and intercultural interaction. This is necessary because, in addition to ignoring interfaith and peace and social justice community events happening right under their noses here at home, mainstream media corporations also persistently fail to provide Americans with unbiased, accurate, substantive, and useful information about the world beyond our borders and the impact of our government’s policies and actions there.

This reporter has covered dozens of local dinners, conferences, fairs, meetings, celebrations, and speeches with a focus on interfaith dialog and intercultural relations here in Iowa over the past several years, far more often than not as the only journalist in attendance, and that was the case at the IDC's annual Friendship and Dialog Dinner. As he so often does, Mayor Frank Cownie found time in his busy schedule to put in an appearance, but, just as at the more recent press conference announcing “A Pax on Both Our Houses,” reporters from the Des Moines Register and other local mainstream media news outlets who had been invited failed to appear.

Is it asking too much to expect the Gannett Co., Inc., the largest newspaper publisher in the nation and a leading international news and information corporation that publishes the Des Moines Register and 84 other daily newspapers in the U.S., including USA Today, with a combined daily paid circulation of more than 7 million (not to mention the 23 television stations Gannett operates in the U.S., its nearly 1,000 non-daily publications, or its international assets), to devote the resources necessary to report on these kinds of events? Surely, if the newspaper’s editors valued such activities or their professional responsibility to report the news, the Des Moines Register, with 1,000 employees, would find a way to assign one or two reporters to devote a few hours a week to local interfaith, intercultural, peace, and social justice organizations’ events and activities. Publisher Laura Hollingsworth has written that, “The Register’s job is to connect, lead and inspire. And that means delivering information to our community when and how they want it.” But perhaps she and Editor Carolyn Washburn view reportage that might encourage interfaith cooperation and promote peace as inconsistent with Gannett’s ownership of Army Times Publishing Co., publishers of Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times, and Marine Corps Times, which Gannett’s web site describes as “the ‘bibles’ of the military market”? Or, perhaps they fear the wrath of Jewish and Christian Zionist business owners who advertise in the newspaper?

While the Des Moines Register generally fails to report on interfaith activities and peace and social justice community events happening on its doorstep, some of the newspaper’s columnists deserve credit for their efforts, as does the newspaper’s editorial page for publishing letters that address these events and issues.

Millions of Americans voted against war in 2006. Hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens have marched against war and taken part in other activities in support of justice and peace in the Middle East. Many thousands of Americans from a variety of backgrounds have worked diligently for years to improve community relations, build and strengthen community-based interfaith and intercultural organizations, and promote peace. There is still much work to be done.

“I doubt if waging a direct attack on any segment of the media is worth the effort when our energy is already overtaxed,” said Guinn, already looking to the future and the next major event on the community calendar.

“Plans for the production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie in Des Moines and possibly Ames are moving ahead,” said Guinn, “Time: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2 pm matinee and 7:30 pm evening performance. Place: Grace United Methodist Church. Suggested admission donation: Adults $20, students $10.”

This reporter would like to cordially invite Laura Hollingsworth and Carolyn Washburn to attend the Des Moines production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, in the hope that they might find inspiration in a truly courageous young woman’s words and actions.

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