The respected Florida-based Poynter Institute, whose mission is to improve journalism in support of democracy, is trying to help journalists cover Islam more effectively by offering a new online course free of charge. So I registered.
And I learned, among other fairly uncontroversial facts about what has been among the world's fastest growing religions, that while approximately 3,000 people were killed on 9/11, approximately 15,000 people in the U.S. are murdered each year.
I also learned that in most years, "jihad organizations" have accounted for "well under 1 percent" of the half million people who are murdered annually. At its "peak" — of what, Poynter News University doesn't tell us — the jihad groups have accounted for under 2 percent of the toll.
Poynter's professors — Lawrence Pintak and Stephen Franklin, both former foreign correspondents — also tell me that 500,000 individuals die each year from "nutritional deficiencies," (I suppose in layman's English, they mean hunger and related causes) "more than 800,000 from malaria, and two million from HIV/AIDS."
So "jihad is not a leading cause of death in the world," the course states, "even in the three countries that account for the bulk of the casualties: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan."
The professors offer these helpful comparative death tolls to give the 9/11 death toll "some context," they say. But the implicit message of the course seems obvious enough: 3,000 dead Americans, (and they might have looked up the actual death toll) have been over-covered.
Why don't journalists spend more time covering malaria, or hunger, or especially HIV/AIDS, which the last time I checked, was hardly being ignored by the nation's media?
For that matter, why aren't the media investigating bathtub deaths, since according to "Overblown," John Mueller's attack on what he regards as the government's obsessive focus on terrorism, more Americans die in bathtub accidents each year than in terrorist attacks?
The answer should be fairly obvious to such an august institution as Poynter: just as the press covers murders rather than traffic fatalities, which far outnumber killings in America each year, it covers terrorism intensively because motive matters.
"If it bleeds it leads," may be a rule-of-thumb in journalism, but how and why the person died still determines the importance of the story.
Terrorism is not just run-of-the-mill murder; It attempts to strike at the heart of who and what we are as a nation. And to compare the numbers who died in the deadliest terror strike in our nation's history with the annual homicides, which occur in all countries and cultures, is to miss the point of what happened in and to America on that fateful day.
Just what kind of journalism is Poynter promoting?
Terrorism was legitimately "the" story of the past decade. And we need only look at today's newspapers — though no longer on the front pages of most of them — to appreciate the potential threat it still poses, despite America's impressive gains against this intractable scourge.
As Poynter was recruiting journalism students for its mediocre course on Islam, real journalists were reporting that a "26-year-old man" from "a town west of Boston," as The New York Times described him in its first graf, was being charged with plotting not only to blow up the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol using remote-controlled aircraft filled with plastic explosives, but also to supply al-Qaida with detonation devices and weapons to kill American soldiers overseas.
The suspect, Rezwan Ferdaus, the Times continues, is "an American citizen" with "a physics degree from Northeastern University in Boston."
Are those facts about him more important than something that is never reported in the story — the fact that he is a Muslim? The story dances all around religion, of course. It quotes the FBI affidavit as saying that Ferdaus considered Americans "enemies of Allah," for instance. But nowhere does it say that he is part of a tiny, but growing, worrisome trend among Muslim Americans — those who are being radicalized here at home by real-life and on-line radical Islamist clerics and by myriad other factors that are still poorly understood.
The Poynter course, "Covering Islam in America," barely mentions the proliferation of such "home-grown" Islamist terrorism in its discussion of important trends and facts about Islam. Its omissions — documented in detail by the conservative Media Research Center — are legion.
Among them are the death fatwas issued by militant Muslims against Salman Rushdie (perhaps that is by now too ancient an outrage to include) or the more modern day threats against Kurt Westergaard, whose cartoon about the Muslim prophet Mohammed sparked riots around the world.
Although just this week Saudi women were just promised the right to vote — albeit in a municipal election four years from now — the new course gives short shrift to the Wahabism in the kingdom which makes women unable to make basic decisions about their lives — to travel, work, get educated, or open a business — without the permission of a male guardian. It says nothing, as MRC notes, about the fact that the Saudis executed a Sudanese worker last week for the Islamic crime of "sorcery."
Its list of individuals and organizations for journalists to consult include such groups as CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which the FBI has shunned for a time, and other dubious, self-appointed "spokespersons" for Islam.
While there are excellent individuals in CAIR and at several of the other organizations the course lists, there are also some extremely radical voices. But Poynter's free, online tutorial on Islam offers few such caveats. (You get what you pay for, I suppose.)
The point of the class seems clear, as MRC argues: to downplay "the impact and importance" of "jihad" and the challenge of terrorism and Islamist terrorism, in particular. Those who follow a violent and perverse interpretation of this pillar of Islam may be a tiny minority, but they have changed our nation's policies, and arguably, its history. But there is no way to know that either from this insipid list of platitudes about one of the world's largest and most influential monotheisms.
This is a course in political correctness for reporters assigned to cover Islam in America who have slept through the past decade. It is unworthy of Poynter.
Read all of Judith Miller's columns on Pundicity.com.