'Religious Intolerance'? WashPost Story Scolds Reporter's 'Activism' Against Local Mosque

Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi and his editors thought it was a major media-ethics story that a reporter for The Wall Street Journal serves on a community home-owners association and has opposed a small local mosque's expansion of early-morning worship services over concerns about noise and parking. This is somehow a national-newspaper concern on the front page of the Style section.

Wall Street Journal data reporter Paul Overberg leads the Carrington Community Association in northern Virginia, which is one of those homeowner associations that tell you can't put up a swing set without their permission. (See here.) They've been in an ongoing dispute with the McLean Islamic Center, a mosque we're told has about 100 members. They haven't been allowed to have more than 10 people worship early on Friday mornings. 

Is this a troubling conflict of interest? The Journal says no. It's not like donating to a political campaign or something seriously activist:

Asked for comment, a spokesman for the newspaper, Steve Severinghaus, issued a statement reading, “Paul Overberg is a well-respected data reporter for the Wall Street Journal and his participation in this neighborhood home owners’ association is not related to his reporting and poses no conflict of interest.”

But Farhi lined up liberal "journalism experts" stroking their chins over the appearance of Islamophobia. You don't have to prove any actual bias by Overberg or the Journal, just the "perception" of bias. This is not a standard the Post or other newspapers enforce when it comes to everyday politics, but it apparently there's a special exemption for Islam: 

While there’s no “actual” conflict of interest because Overberg isn’t using his position to influence a personal matter, there could be a “perceived” conflict, said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. “It would be easy for people to assume his activism makes his journalism suspect,” she said...

Edward Wasserman, dean of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, called Overberg’s activities “awkward” but said they pose more of a “perception problem” for his employer than an egregious ethical trespass.

The Wall Street Journal should be worried that his involvement, even in a neighborhood squabble, will be viewed as religious intolerance,” he said. “A reasonable person could see this as approving the exclusion of Muslims. They would not be out of line to curtail this as a matter of brand management.”

Indeed, the appearance of bias in these cases is just as important as actual bias, said Leonard Downie Jr., a former editor of The Washington Post.

Downie, now a journalism professor at Arizona State University, took his neutrality obligation so seriously as an editor that he declined to vote, arguing that doing so could bias his editorial judgment. But he said he permitted his staff to become involved in school, religious or family organizations and activities that weren’t newsworthy.

He said Overberg could reconcile his community involvement and his obligations as a reporter simply by stepping back. “If I were the editor of the Journal, I’d ask him: ‘Why can’t someone else be the leader [of the homeowners association]? Why do you have to do it?’ ”

Farhi didn't quote anyone outside the politically correct zone. Would the Post ever wonder that when it came to Republicans, "the appearance of bias is just as important as actual bias"?

I might have challenged him that a far more obvious ethical lapse in this Russian-collusion era is the Post publishing China Daily, a newspaper section from the People's Republic of China. 

Tim Graham's picture

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