Update (6/2/21): A little over an hour after this article was published, WJLA apologized on the air for anchor Dave Lucas’ “inappropriate” question during the debate. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on May 27 that Bill Fanshawe, senior vice president at Sinclair Broadcast Group, also emailed the Council on American-Islamic Relations to apologize for the “inappropriate and disrespectful question to Del. Sam Rasoul.” The email also stated: “We have reached out directly to Del. Rasoul’s campaign and expressed our sincere apology for this question and for the impact of these words.” WJLA’s on-air apology used similar wording.
An anchor for Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Washington, D.C., station WJLA was criticized by Virginia politicians and prominent Muslims for asking a Muslim candidate for lieutenant governor if he could assure voters he’d “represent all of them, regardless of faith and beliefs.” Both Sinclair and WJLA, which hosted the Democratic lieutenant governor debate, have so far failed to acknowledge or address the bigoted question or the criticism of it, even though WJLA reported on the debate at least three times on Wednesday.
During the May 25 debate, the candidates were at one point discussing campaign finance reform. Anchor Dave Lucas then posed this question to Del. Sam Rasoul, who is a Muslim:
DAVE LUCAS (WJLA ANCHOR): My question is to Del. Rasoul. The Washington Post reported your fundraising effort is category-leading because of some out-of-state donors connected to Muslim advocacy groups. Nothing wrong with that, but that was the case. Talk a little bit about your fundraising efforts, and can you assure Virginians if you're elected you'll represent all of them, regardless of faith and beliefs?
Journalist Lauren Burke shared video from the debate on Twitter and objected to the question, asking: “Who else would be asked this? Didn’t we do this last 60 years ago” with President John F. Kennedy, who was attacked during the 1960 campaign for his religious faith.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch covered Lucas’ question to Rasoul, and the Virginia Mercury published an article with the headline “‘Inexcusable’: Question in Democratic LG debate about Rasoul’s Muslim donors sparks backlash.”
And there was quite a backlash. Many current and former Virginia politicians, including the attorney general and some of Rasoul’s opponents who shared the debate stage with him, also criticized Lucas’ question:
The civil rights organization Muslim Advocates also condemned Lucas’ question to Rasoul in a statement from Public Advocacy Director Scott Simpson:
The way Delegate Rasoul was singled out as a Muslim and had his loyalty questioned is shameful. Virginia’s recent elections have been rife with anti-Muslim bigotry. Suggesting that Muslims are disloyal, foreign and have values that are contrary to the Constitution are false, harmful, anti-Muslim tropes. It’s insulting to Virginian and American values for a debate moderator to inject this type of bigotry into a televised debate.
Del. Rasoul has been serving in the Virginia House of Delegates and representing all Virginians in his district, regardless of faith, for more than six years now. By questioning his loyalty, Lucas, whether he knew it or not, was invoking a deeply-ingrained, anti-Muslim trope pushed by hate groups for years. Sadly, this is a common occurrence for American Muslims in public life. As our report Running on Hate exposed, American Muslims running for office regularly face anti-Muslim attacks. The biased question Lucas asked Rasoul reinforces harmful, false stereotypes and prevents American Muslims from participating in public life. WJLA’s Dave Lucas owes Del. Rasoul and Virginia’s voters an apology.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations also suggested an apology is in order over the question Lucas asked of Rasoul:
There is no justification for questioning whether a candidate can perform the duties of their office because they received a campaign contribution from a donor of the same religious background – no matter what religion that may be.
Had the Muslim candidate been of the Christian, Jewish or of another faith tradition, there would have been immediate calls from the public for an apology.
Holding Muslim candidates running for office to a different standard creates barriers for Muslims to be civically-engaged and endangers the Muslim community by propagating Islamophobic narratives.
We call on political leaders in Virginia to reaffirm their commitment to supporting the civic participation of all Americans, regardless of belief or lack of it.
But so far, no apology for the bigoted question has been publicly given by Sinclair, WJLA, or Lucas. Lucas’ verified Twitter account hasn’t had a new post in a week, Sinclair’s hasn’t had a new tweet in an even longer time, and WJLA’s Twitter account had not mentioned this debate question as of publication time. Sinclair has not issued any press releases about this controversy, and WJLA’s website seems to have no relevant mention of Rasoul.
In three reports WJLA has run on the debate so far on Wednesday, none of them even mentioned this specific question from Lucas to Rasoul.
Update (5/26/21): This article has been updated to include a statement from CAIR.