War of words

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

Peace broke out for a while, but it was short-lived. McGonigle kept writing new stories about the HLF's involvement with terrorists, re-reporting old proof of the connection to give the articles necessary context.

But the Muslim community's problems with the Morning News went deeper than any one reporter. When the paper ran a photo of the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Ladin standing in front of a mosque, a contingent from the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR-Southwest) met with editors to express their outrage. When the paper ran a story erroneously reporting that the HLF was raising money for the Kosovo Liberation Army instead of its true beneficiaries, Kosovo Muslims, the phone rang with discontent. When the imam of the Arlington mosque was identified as the religious advisor to a man who had links to bin Ladin, the Muslim community was upset by the mere mention of his status as a cleric. "It implies anyone associated with Islam is a violent person," says Mohamed Elmogy, vice president of CAIR. "I came to the conclusion that this wasn't done out of ignorance. There was a hidden agenda to bash and demonize Muslims."

Gilbert Bailon, vice president and executive editor of the Morning News, defends the paper's coverage of the Muslim community, calling it unbiased and objective. "Within any community there are stories that people don't like to see, but we have an obligation to write them in a fair way."

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.

He admits that there have been problems in the past: A cub reporter writing over her head about the HLF and saying it was raising funds for the Kosovo Liberation Army; a misunderstood phrase, "useful idiots," that "probably shouldn't have been used in the first place." But he believes the bulk of the criticism stems from those in the Muslim community who support the HLF and its lawsuit against the Morning News. He denies that the paper is allowing a reporter to destroy a charitable organization by writing recycled articles that pile on old evidence. "We are not just rehashing. Each time we do a story about the HLF, there is news in it...We haven't written anything beyond what we can document."

In late February, after four more McGonigle articles reported continuing accusations of HLF's terrorist ties, many within the Muslim community felt so wronged by Morning News coverage that they again took to the streets. Muslims Against Defamation was organized to formulate a broader-based community response to the problem, says Janney, who became part of its "team." But Janney was also a member of CAIR, and the head of CAIR was Khalid Hamideh, HLF's attorney. InfoCom allowed Janney, its employee, to create a protest Web site, dallasNOTnews.com, that mocked the News' own Web site. Oddly, in his original 1996 HLF article, McGonigle reported that the wife of Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook had invested $250,000 in InfoCom, which was run by her cousin, Bayan El-Ashi, whose brother was the HLF treasurer and InfoCom's international marketing director. Connections such as these may just be coincidental, but they are the kinds of facts reporters are loath to dismiss and Muslims are quick to loathe.

The protest Web site implores its users to boycott the Morning News and offers a cancellation form that is linked to the paper's online circulation desk. Steve McGonigle is listed as "Public Enemy Number 1," and his firing is one of three demands that must be met before MAD will end its protests. In its "Headlines of Shame," the site examines stories that the site claims "shed light on the malicious agenda of The Dallas Morning News." Several are printed verbatim with comments interspersed to highlight allegations of bias.

The Web site receives more than 2,000 hits a day, many of them from Morning News employees, Janney says. So it shouldn't have come as a surprise when Lisa Meyerhoff, an attorney representing the Morning News, sent two letters to MAD demanding that the Web site cease using "The Dallas Morning News" trademark and the "unauthorized reproduction" of its "copyrighted works."

"It's ludicrous," Janney says. "How can you criticize a newspaper without using that newspaper's name? These letters are just intimidation tactics to silence criticism."

At the same time it was trying to shut down the Web site, newspaper executives hoped to arrange a meeting with Muslim leaders to see if their dispute could be resolved amicably. But MAD refused their request, hoping the continuing protest, which included a weekly Monday lunchtime rally outside the newspaper's offices, would further sensitize the paper to the community's position. Then in April, after the HLF filed its lawsuit alleging the Morning News had defamed the organization, the paper itself grew cautious about engaging Muslim leaders in an open dialogue.

But the protests outside the Morning News and the Web site postings must have had an effect. Bailon arranged to meet with Muslim leaders, who demanded as a pre-condition that Burl Osborne attend as well. The meeting was scheduled for 11 a.m. May 3 at the Morning News offices, but Osborne had a scheduling conflict and didn't show. This angered the six Muslims in attendance, and they walked out without commencing the negotiations. It wasn't enough that Bailon, Robert Mong (president and general manager), and Lennox Samuels (deputy managing editor) were ready to listen.

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