Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Maddow, the mosque and the Fox

Rachel Maddow has been a necessary voice in the cable news landscape, and has been since before MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” debuted in September 2008. In that brief time, she’s dazzled and endeared viewers with a interrogative fearlessness and a breathtaking command of facts and analyses (couched, it’s gotta be said, in a self-effacing on-camera style whose occasional corniness seems a deliberate attempt to get us to like her, which she needn’t worry about in the least).

But the antennae for news that we’ve thought were damn near infallible weren’t quite fully calibrated recently, in the wake of a controversy that’s in the process of reframing old arguments of religious freedom, and maybe redefining 21st-century America to itself and the world.

In a startling admission, Maddow, in an interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast, said she didn’t want to address the mosque controversy on-air because she felt that the issue was manufactured by conservative extremists, and their proxies and minions at Fox News.

"I’d rather not cover it,” she told Grove. “It’s just one of those fake, non-controversial things that has been ginned up into a controversy for a political purpose. Participating in the discussion of this, as a political matter, is playing right into the hands of the people who ginned this up. Adding to the volume — in both senses of the word — of the coverage, um, grosses me out a little bit."

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"I have been talking for awhile about the Fox strategy of scaring white people in order to score political points and benefit conservative politicians,” Maddow told Grove. “And one of the hallmarks is that their most potent ‘scare-white-people’ stories are not real news stories. They’re stories that they invent out of thin air. That’s true about ACORN. That’s true about the Shirley Sherrod case. That’s true about the fake New Black Panther Party thing. That’s true about Van Jones.”

But those examples don’t dovetail with the emerging Park51 (Cordoba House) mosque story. This “scare-white-people story” wasn’t “ginned up” by the extremists on the right; it wasn’t evidence of a spot strategy meant to sow discord among Americans generally. It exploited (or just revealed) something that’s already been there, as part of the fabric of American life.

What’s given the Park51 matter such traction, such heft into the culture, is the fact of its real bottom-up origins, its truly and sadly organic place in American society and history. Today, Muslim Americans — like Japanese Americans, Italian Americans and Irish Americans before them, and like African Americans, still — are faced with portrayal as The Other in American life, a portrayal that’s happened before in the years since the Iranian hostage crisis ... of 1979.

The fact that the location of a place of worship in the world’s pre-eminent bastion of diversity could be so hotly debated by its citizens and Americans everywhere is a news story in itself.

Add to this the public's debate over a Muslim place of worship placed a short sprint from the site of the country’s worst terrorist incident — an action perpetrated by Muslims (whose actions on Sept. 11, 2001, proved they’d vacated the faith they professed) — and you have an even bigger news story.

Regardless of Fox News’ role in attempting to brand the story with its conveniently binary view of American culture, the Park51 mosque controversy is worthy of coverage because of what it says about the insistences of this nation’s founding Christian heritage and its siege mentality in the post-9/11 world.

That’s not “ginned up” like ACORN or the New Black Panther Party scare. The Park51 issue taps into Americans’ age-old sense of their identities, and the identities and lifestyles of those who frighten them (including not just Muslims, by the way, but gays and lesbians as well).

That’s a story, Fox News be damned.

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The idea that Maddow had to be dragged just short of kicking and screaming into covering the story, finally weighing in on Monday, is especially disturbing, given her proven willingness to jump aggressively into a day’s given headlines.

Maddow told Grove that by Monday, the Park51 matter had “become the foremost political issue in the country right now ... and not weighing in on it is to spit into the wind."

That’s the rationale of a follower, not a leader. As such, it’s hard to reconcile with the Rachel Maddow who jumped into coverage of the Tea Party movement and the birther movement — both utterly manufactured by the extremist right — without a second thought.

Why the double standard?

Maddow’s intellect is such that, even though she was slower than usual out of the gate on this one, we can expect her to shed light on the issue where there hasn’t been any before. Now that she’s grasped the depth and passion of this debate — one that as of Tuesday evening took on a violent dimension — we can rest easier.

No worries. We'll carry on like this never happened. Even the best and brightest miss one every now and then.

Image credits: Maddow: MSNBC. Fox News Channel logo: Fox News. Japanese internment order, May 1942:

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