War of words

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

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.

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.

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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."  

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."

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.

"If the Morning News wanted to show its sensitivity, they failed miserably," says Janney, who was part of the Muslim delegation. "They insulted our integrity."

In retaliation, MAD leaders promise to escalate their campaign. They are considering an advertising boycott, a class-action suit, and "a few more surprises," Janney says.

Bailon regrets the hard feelings the meeting has engendered but realizes the problem isn't likely to resolve itself quickly. "We will continue to cover the Muslim community as we always have, as a multifaceted, important part of our community." But when it comes to the HLF, the Morning News hasn't flinched. On Saturday, McGonigle wrote yet another HLF piece, reporting that the family of the victim of a Hamas drive-by shooting has sued the Dallas charity in a Chicago federal court for $200 million.

In the meantime, it's back to the frontlines for MAD, where the number of protests have increased since the aborted May 3 meeting.

"We came here today," yelled Janney into his bullhorn before ending the Friday demonstration, "because Gilbert Bailon doesn't keep his promises...And make no mistake about it. We will be back. This is our lives at stake. We will be back."

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