If the “ship them all back” remarks hurt Muslim USF junior Layelle Saad, she hid it well.
Instead, Saad, a member of Students for International Peace and Justice, continued getting her message across, refusing to let the comments of an elderly passerby who interrupted her interview deter her. The coverage of Muslim issues in The Tampa Tribune, Saad said, is biased and often a thinly disguised attack on Muslim religion, culture and on leaders of the Muslim community in Tampa.
“This smear campaign has been going on for seven years, and we’re not going to sit around and take it anymore,” Saad said. “They’re defaming our religion, and it’s getting worse every time, so we have to make a stand.”
Saad was among approximately 80 protesters demonstrating against The Tampa Tribune’s coverage of Muslim issues Friday. The protesters, organized by SIPJ, rallied on Parker Street outside the offices of The Tampa Tribune for more than an hour, chanting slogans calling for an end to what they perceive as biased coverage. Many protesters carried placards with comments such as “We want journalists, not propagandists” and “The Tampa Fibune.” Seven police officers maintained a close watch throughout the demonstration.
Two Tribune journalists in particular were cited by protesters as having provoked the demonstration and found themselves the target of many chants and placards, Michael Fetcher and columnist Daniel Ruth.
Ruth’s column on June 30 attacked Sami Al-Arian, the tenured USF professor currently on paid leave pending a decision on his proposed dismissal, reiterating disputed evidence linking Al-Arian to terrorists.
Ruth followed that up on July 8 when he condemned legal proceedings attesting Sultaana Freeman’s right to refuse to remove a veil covering all of her face other than her eyes for her driver’s license photograph. References in the column to the Koran and the wives of Mohammed were, according to protesters, offensive to Muslims.
“He’s sitting here being all sarcastic and making fun of our religion,” said Saad. “I respect his freedom of speech, but as a journalist he should take a more unbiased approach when he is writing.”
Ruth said that as a columnist of seven years, he was accustomed to the vociferous complaints his work sometimes provoked, which he recognized as part of people’s First Amendment rights.
“My attitude is that anyone that plugs down their two bits has every right to complain,” said Ruth.
“When Clinton was president, people accused me of being a right-wing John Birch type. Then with Bush, I get accused of being an extreme left-wing liberal. Other columns have seen me called anti-Catholic, anti-Baptist. It’s all part and parcel of this job. It goes with the territory.”
But for Saad, Ruth’s columns have tangible repercussions.
“His actions have consequences. It incites hatred against Muslims,” she said.
Ruth, however, maintained there was no set policy for the Tribune’s coverage of Muslim issues.
“The only agenda I have is to make deadlines,” Ruth said.
The other main target of demonstrators’ ire, Fetcher, said he could see no grounds for the demonstration.
“I think they’re misguided. To say that when we write a story about a couple of people who happen to be Muslims is an attack on Muslims is a stretch,” said Fetcher.
Fetcher’s recent front-page story linking Al-Arian to Islamic Jihad that used the rare, but not unknown, journalistic practice of quoting unnamed sources was perceived by protesters as one of the clearest examples of the Tribune’s alleged anti-Muslim slant.
Al-Arian, who attended the protest, said the partisanship of the unnamed sources, in this case from within the Israeli intelligence services, irreparably damaged the credibility of the article.
“When we look at the evidence, there is none. All anonymous sources and, in particular, using foreign sources that have a stake in this, a motivation.”
Fetcher maintained that with the exception of the most recent story, where the sources were not named for their own safety, reports concerning Al-Arian were based on hard evidence.
“If our coverage, based on court proceedings, court records, immigration proceedings and videotape, offends people then I’m sorry,” he said. “But that doesn’t make us pro or anti anybody. We’re reporting on the record.”
Referring to Fetcher’s story, Al-Arian said the newspaper was “aiding and abetting” Israeli intelligence services in discrediting prominent Muslim figures.
“I don’t think (Fetcher) should use double standards. One for Muslims and one for everyone else,” said Al-Arian. “No group or person would be subjected to these kind of sensational attacks if they had a different background, different religion or different ethnicity.”
In a news statement, SPIJ called for the Tribune to prevent “biased and racist” reporters from covering stories concerning Muslim issues and to discontinue the publishing of articles with claims not supported by evidence. The statement also called for the development of a dialogue between the Tribune and members of the Muslim community to foster improved relations. SIPJ plan to take their protest further by asking local Muslim storeowners to refuse to stock the Tribune.
“We’re digging up all the (past) articles to show how biased they are,” said Saad. “We’re going to present it to people and let them make their decision whether they want to support the Tribune or not.”
Al-Arian said the boycott could be extended to companies that advertise in the Tribune.
“If Sears and JCPenney agree with this kind of standard, and they help (the Tribune) with advertising, then the Muslim community needs to know that, and then they will have to take a stand,” said Al-Arian.
Sean Kinane, a graduate student, said he attended the protest because he wanted people in the community to question what they read in newspapers. One reader he is particularly concerned about is USF President Judy Genshaft, who is still considering whether to fire Al-Arian.
“(Genshaft) said she heard new information when (Fetcher’s) article came out, so she is apparently relying on the Tribune as a source of her decision-making, at least in part,” Kinane said. “So if (the Tribune) came out and admitted that the practices that they are doing are questionable, maybe that would have an effect on her.”