NYT Scrubs GZM Imam's 'Iconic' Paragraph From Original Online Report

August 18th, 2010 1:41 PM
GZMprotestSign0810On December 8 of last year, at some point before hitting the "print" button, someone at the New York Times decided that a story about what has since become known as the Ground Zero Mosque needed to be reworked.

Earlier that day, the Times published an online powder-puff piece by reporters Ralph Blumenthal and Sharaf Mowjood about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf's GZM plans. The pair's story was revised before it went to print, and the online version was changed ("Muslim Prayers and Renewal Near Ground Zero," with a web page title bar that reads "Muslim Prayers Fuel Spiritual Rebuilding Project Near Ground Zero") to mirror it. It's even puffier.

Several bloggers posted about the pair's online original when it appeared. A few, including Pamela Geller at Atlas Shrugs and Ben Muessig at The Gothamist, excerpted some or all of the key paragraphs shown on the left below (bold in the third paragraph is mine). On the right is how that segment went to print on December 9 (link is to hard-to-read enlarged scan of that day's front page, where the story's opening paragraphs appeared near its bottom right), and how it currently appears online:


Putting aside the issue of whether previous online versions of subsequently revised stories should be retained and kept available to readers for future reference (I think they should; the Times, the Associated Press, and others clearly disagree), and even giving the paper the benefit of the doubt on the need to fit available print edition space, there's plenty of reason to question the paper's editing choices. The most important one is: "Why did the third paragraph disappear?" That disappearance raises at least these points:

  • The imam describes the location as being "close to 9/11," as if the fallen towers represent some kind of event and not an actual place. Is this imperfect English, or a slip of the tongue? Readers who know more about Rauf's full background might be tempted to think he's referring to something positive, especially given that he describes being so close to them as being "iconic."
  • Expanding on the Rauf's use of "iconic," the word "icon" in context means: "a person or thing regarded as a symbol of a belief, nation, community, or cultural movement." So if the GZM's proposed location is indeed "iconic," it's far, far more than a nice community center, isn't it? Readers who know more about Rauf's full background have legitimate cause for wondering what he believes the GZM really symbolizes.
  • It's also interesting how the phrase "a longtime critic of radical Islamists" fell off. It's not like "Islamists" is a forbidden word at the Old Grey Lady -- or even (though much more rare) "radical Islamists." Perhaps Blumenthal or Mowjood found some contradictory information, like that 60 Minutes interview where Rauf told Ed Bradley less than three weeks after the 9/11 attacks that "the United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened," and that "in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA." It seems a bit more likely, at least before the GZM idea sprung up, that Rauf, based on his own words, had really been a longtime sympathizer with radical Islamists.
  • Finally, it's more than a little odd that the Times denied itself the opportunity, after originally claiming it, to brag about getting a scoop. Did the paper back away from seemingly valid bragging rights because of nervousness about being accused of proactively helping the project move along?

Given the facts and attitude clues washed out, the Times made some interesting editorial decisions indeed. When done, the presentation of Rauf is on balance became much more favorable, and there were no direct alerts that something might be amiss. Imagine that.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.