Washington Post deserves blame for anti-Muslim hysteria, too

Fox News is getting some (completely appropriate) strong criticism for the disgraceful anti-Muslim hysteria the cable channel has stoked in its frenzied coverage of the proposed Islamic center in Manhattan. But it is important to remember that Fox didn't set off the depressingly ill-informed and hateful discussion all by itself. It had help. The Washington Post's “On Faith” web site, for example, has done everything it can to turn the matter into a national controversy for a full month, publishing dozens of posts about the cultural center.

On Faith kicked things off on July 19, misleadingly framing the issue: “A mosque near ground zero?” (It isn't a “mosque,” it's a cultural center, with a basketball court and swimming pool and whatnot.) That framing post referred to exactly one person's opinion about the center: Sarah Palin's.

From there, the Post turned things over to a parade of bigots like Richard Land. Some of the On Faith posts in opposition to the center were relatively unremarkable. Others were extreme.

A July 26 post by Ramdas Lamb took the position that “Islam is treated with kid gloves” in America, a claim that strained credulity at the time and looks downright absurd after several weeks of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

On July 21, Cal Thomas -- another of On Faith's “remarkable panel of distinguished figures” -- used the space granted to him by the Washington Post to call Muslims liars, insist that the cultural center is about “celebrating” the deaths of thousands of Americans, suggest that America should take Saudi Arabia's lead when it comes to religious tolerance, and claim that the cultural center is an attempt by “our enemies” to establish a “beachhead in America” from which to “launch new terror attacks and forcibly convert Americans to their way of thinking and believing.”

In all, On Faith has posted 47 separate pieces about the proposed cultural center over the past month. True, some have been compelling defenses of the religious freedoms enshrined in our constitution -- but the Washington Post has also served as a key incubator of some of the most virulent religious bigotry America has seen in quite some time. And by dressing that bigotry up as a high-minded “conversation on religion and politics” that “sheds light rather than generates heat” through “intelligent, informed, eclectic, respectful conversation,” the Post has legitimized the kind of ugly and hateful smears best left to the Pam Gellers of the world.

It's almost impossible to overstate the irresponsibility of Fox News and Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin and other far-right media figures who have ginned up this phony controversy for partisan gain. They deserve the considerable condemnation they are receiving from many quarters. But that shouldn't get the Washington Post and other news organizations off the hook. Nobody forced them to grant Cal Thomas a platform to smear Muslims a month ago (or to pass his smears off as intelligent and respectful commentary.) They chose to do so.