War of words

Morning News reports of a charity's ties to terrorism spur Muslim protests

As far as civil disobedience goes, the protest in front of The Dallas Morning News early Friday morning was about as obedient as it gets.

A handful of Muslim demonstrators walked along Young Street, slowing their gait deliberately as they ambled in front of the entrance to the newspaper's parking lot again and again. There were no angry fists clenched in outrage, no rhythmic chants vilifying the enemy, no religious zealots whipped first into a froth and then into a paddy wagon. Instead, seven Muslim men and women carried banners that expressed the collective bile of their community: The Dallas Morning News Promotes Hate; It's Not OK to Bash Muslims; News not Views.

John Janney stood apart from the others, wearing a yellow tie and carrying a bullhorn. "Will it be today when I go into my place of worship and a lunatic whose hatred is so well fed by the pages of The Dallas Morning News picks up a gun and begins shooting us as we pray?" he asks.

Demonstrators gather outside the Morning News last week, claiming the paper is biased against Islam.
Mark Graham
Demonstrators gather outside the Morning News last week, claiming the paper is biased against Islam.

It's more likely that these Muslims will be hurt by the road rage of tardy Morning News employees than the vengeful gunfire of an assassin, but that hasn't stopped local Muslims from frequently demonstrating against the paper since February. To them, it's a rare Morning News story that doesn't link Muslims with terrorism. And they find it telling that the Morning News has repeatedly published what they perceive is essentially the same story accusing the Richardson-based Holy Land Foundation, a popular Islamic charity, of being a front for Mideast terrorism. The HLF sued the Morning News for defamation in April, though the paper denies it has libeled the organization.

Spearheaded by the Muslims Against Defamation (MAD), local Muslims have launched another weapon against the newspaper. Janney and other employees at InfoCom, an Islamic-owned Richardson computer company, have designed a Web site, dallasNOTnews.com, that urges its readers to boycott the newspaper and cancel subscriptions--to do whatever is legally permissible to change what they contend is the paper's anti-Islamic bias. The Morning News has done more than deny these charges. It's attempting to shut down the Web site, claiming it infringes on its legally protected trademark. In doing so, however, the newspaper has upped the stakes with MAD, which now has a First Amendment claim upon which to wage its protest.

How could The Dallas Morning News, a bastion of political correctness, have so offended a growing minority within its own community? Has it truly been heartless in its coverage, insensitive to the many while accusing the few? Or is the Muslim community so reactive to criticism, so fearful of being misunderstood that there is no way to placate their concerns without distorting the truth?

The Morning News has had problems with the Muslim community in Dallas ever since it began reporting on the Holy Land Foundation in 1994. Not that the paper broke the story; rather, it followed the lead of The New York Times and CBS News as they tried to connect the dots, linking the Holy Land Foundation, which receives broad charitable support from local Muslims, with Hamas, now listed by the U.S. government as a Palestinian terrorist group.

But it took the reporting of Morning News writer Steve McGonigle to raise the ire of local Muslims in April 1996. In an extensive article, he laid out the accusations that the HLF was a financial front for Hamas terrorism. But he left himself open for criticism from Muslim groups by relying heavily on Israeli government sources, even though he also followed a paper trail of money flowing from Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook to the HLF. To this day, the HLF maintains that it is a charitable organization, dedicated to humanitarian causes in the West Bank, Gaza, and around the world. Of course, admitting that it is part of the Hamas financial network could trigger criminal sanctions under the sweeping provisions of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act. McGonigle declined to be interviewed for this article, though he stands firmly behind his story.

Two days after the McGonigle article, the Morning News compounded its problems when it wrote an editorial employing the phrase "useful idiots," a term Lenin had coined when referring to those who gave blindly to Communist causes without realizing who they were financing. By applying it broadly to those in the Muslim community who gave to the HLF, the newspaper stoked Muslim outrage. "We found it offensive when they called everyone idiots because the community supports the Holy Land Foundation," says Omar Saleem, then national director of the HLF. "That's what sparked our protest."

For the next five months, Muslims demonstrated in front of the Morning News' offices and made their feelings known in a constant barrage of phone calls and e-mails. Only after a Morning News editorial expressed its "regret" at what was taken "by some Muslim readers as a slur against all followers of Islam" did the protesters declare victory and go home. Muslim leaders also met with Morning News executives and editors, including Publisher Burl Osborne, and reached a "solid agreement," Saleem says. "The paper was supposed to hire more Muslims, require sensitivity training for its reporters, and contact us if anything unfavorable to the Muslim community was about to be published."

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