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Another Pulitzer Prize Disgrace

April 19, 2007 By:
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Andrea Elliot

In 1932, one of the most prestigious honors in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize, was awarded to Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter who was then serving as foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union.

Though many other Pulitzers -- both deserved and undeserved -- have been handed out over the years, Duranty's is remembered more than most.

In the online archive of the prizes (www.pulitzer.org), Duranty's award is noted in a bland, one-sentence explanation that reads simply: "For his series of dispatches on Russia especially the working out of the Five Year Plan."

The reference is to Duranty's reporting on Soviet leader Josef Stalin's economic plan. Duranty's dispatches helped build an image of Comrade Stalin's totalitarian state as an idealistic work in progress.

But there were a few things missing from Duranty's stories. These included the mass murder of Soviet peasants who resisted forced collectivization, and the deliberate attempt at starvation of the people of the Ukraine in what is now known as the "terror famine" that took up to 3 million lives. He also got the part about the disastrous five-year plan "working out" wrong.

Walter Duranty

In subsequent years, Duranty followed this up with further lies that whitewashed Stalin's infamous show trials and purges that resulted in the deaths of millions more victims of communism.

Duranty's work remains the gold standard of journalism malpractice primarily because of his political motives. The writer sympathized with the Soviet Union, and was willing to lie about it.

Sadly, efforts to get the Pulitzer Prize Board to revoke Duranty's honor have been resisted by both the board and the Times, even though the latter admits Duranty's reporting was, as current editor Bill Keller put it, "credulous" and "uncritical."

A Missing Fact
Unfortunately, that belated admission of fault might well apply to the latest member of the Times staff to win a Pulitzer. The 2007 Pulitzer for Feature Writing announced this week went to Andrea Elliot, the author of an 11,000-word, three-part story, "An Imam in America," about Sheik Reda Shata of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The series, which first appeared on March 5-7, 2006, is touted on the newspaper's Web site as the story of "the inner life of a mosque in Brooklyn, and the dynamic, creative, conflicted and fearful imam at its center: Sheik Reda Shata. Through study and conversation, persuasion and persistence, Elliott achieved an intimate, tough-minded exploration of the lives of immigrant Muslims after 9/11."

However, a few things were missing from these "tough-minded" pieces, which sympathetically portrayed the Egyptian-born Shata.

The most important was Elliot's failure to mention anything about the role of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in the murder of 16-year-old Ari Halberstam in a van filled with Jewish children on the Brooklyn Bridge. Not one of her 11,000 words refers to the fact that it was this same mosque that was the forum for the sermon that inspired one of its congregants, Rashid Baz, to go out and try to murder as many Jews as he could in March of 1994.

At Baz's trial, it was revealed that Mohammed Moussa -- Shata's predecessor at the mosque -- was quoted as saying the following in a sermon heard by the killer on the day of the rampage: "This takes the mask off of the Jews. It shows them to be racist and fascist as bad as the Nazis. Palestinians are suffering from the occupation and it's time to end it."

How, you may ask, could one write about any religious institution and ignore the most notorious aspect of its recent history?

In a subsequent article in The New York Sun, Halberstam's mother, Devorah, related that she called Elliot to ask why she had omitted the story of her son's murder from the feature on the mosque. Elliot replied that "she knew nothing about it."

This was, at the very least, an indictment of the reporter's research skills, which ought to have earned her the humiliation of an editor's note acknowledging the mistake, not journalism's greatest prize.

But there is more wrong here than just one missing fact. It is that the entire thesis of Elliot's work (which ironically concluded on the 12th anniversary of Ari's death) was to portray Shata and his mosque as a force for moderation.

Setting up her subject, Elliot insists that "imams like Shata -- men who embrace American freedom and condemn the radicals they feel have tainted their faith -- rarely make the news."

While Shata did not give the sermon that inspired Baz, he did praise the Hamas terror group, and spoke of its leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, as a "lion of Palestine [who] has been martyred." As even Elliot was constrained to note, Shata had also praised a Palestinian female suicide bomber, Reem Al-Reyashi, as a "martyr."

Absent from the feature is any attempt at a serious discussion of how a religious leader who praises terrorists can, at the same time, pretend to be fostering interfaith dialogue with Jews and Christians. Shata utters coded responses such as, "What I may see as terrorism, you may not see that way," without follow-up from his interviewer.

Though quite a bit of space in the piece was devoted to the imam's attempts at matchmaking, serious issues about the way Islamist practices intersect with American life were left out. Their views of sensitive subjects such as "honor" killings of women or polygamy remain largely absent.

Instead, what Elliot -- and presumably, her editors -- were interested in was the supposed plight of American Muslims in a hostile society.

This is in spite of the fact that attacks on Muslims in post-9/11 America have been notably rare, and that American leaders have gone out of their way to distinguish Islam from Islamist extremists.

While the newspaper describes her beat as "focusing on the impact of 9/11 on American Muslims," a better way to describe it might be to say its purpose is to divert us from the need to focus on Islamist extremism.

Politically Inspired Agenda
The Times had another use for their pages: making the rest of us feel guilty about the sensitivities of some Muslim-Americans whose views on terrorism are understandably unpopular. Facts that don't feed into these assumptions are slighted or completely ignored.

Like more recent Times coverage of the Council on American Islamic Relations, in which those apologists for terror have been allowed to rebrand themselves as a "civil-rights group," the reporting here leaves little doubt that this is a newspaper on a mission. The result is not only shoddy journalism; it is a politically inspired muddle that leaves us knowing only those elements of the life of Shata and his mosque that he wishes to present to us.

Both Elliot and Duranty crossed the same line when they allowed their agenda to dictate their coverage. While Duranty covered up genocide, dishonesty about Islamist extremism is no less egregious. What this proves is that those who imagined that Duranty was a relic of journalism's past were wrong. That a travesty such as Elliot's "imam" would bring a Pulitzer is a disgrace that again taints the reputation of both the prizes and the Times.  

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