View From America: Pulitzer disgrace

The Brooklyn mosque's role in the 1994 murder of Ari Halberstam on the Brooklyn Bridge is ignored.

tobin 88 (photo credit: )
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
In 1932, one of the most prestigious honors in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize, was awarded to Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter who was then serving as foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union. Though many other Pulitzers have been handed out over the years, Duranty's is remembered more than most. In the on-line archive of the prizes (, his award is noted in a bland, one-sentence explanation that reads simply: "For his series of dispatches on Russia, especially the working out of the Five Year Plan." The reference is to Duranty's reporting on Stalin's economic plan. Duranty's dispatches helped build an image of Stalin's totalitarian state as an idealistic work in progress. But there were a few things missing from Duranty's stories. These included the mass murder of Soviet peasants who resisted forced collectivization, and the "terror famine" which took up to three million lives. He also got the part about the disastrous five-year plan "working out" wrong. In subsequent years, Duranty followed this up with further lies that whitewashed Stalin's infamous show trials and purges that resulted in the deaths of millions more victims of communism. Duranty's work remains the gold standard of journalism malpractice primarily because of his political motives. The writer sympathized with the Soviet Union, and was willing to lie about it. THE 2007 Pulitzer for Feature Writing announced this week went to another member of the Times staff, Andrea Elliott. She's the author of an 11,000-word, three-part story, "An Imam in America," about Sheik Reda Shata of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, New York. The series, which first appeared on March 5-7, 2006, is touted on the newspaper's Web site as the story of "the inner life of a mosque in Brooklyn, and the dynamic, creative, conflicted and fearful imam at its center: Sheik Reda Shata. Through study and conversation, persuasion and persistence, Elliott achieved an intimate, tough-minded exploration of the lives of immigrant Muslims after 9/11." However, a few things were missing from these "tough-minded" pieces, which sympathetically portrayed the Egyptian-born Shata. The most important was Elliott's failure to mention anything about the role of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in the murder of 16-year-old Ari Halberstam in a van filled with Jewish children on the Brooklyn Bridge. Not one of her 11,000 words refers to the fact that it was this same mosque that was the forum for the sermon that inspired one of its congregants, Rashid Baz, to go out and try to murder as many Jews as he could in March 1994. At Baz's trial, it was revealed that Mohammed Moussa - Shata's predecessor at the mosque - was quoted as saying the following in a sermon heard by the killer on the day of the rampage: "This takes the mask off of the Jews. It shows them to be racist and fascist, as bad as the Nazis. Palestinians are suffering from the occupation and it's time to end it." HOW, YOU might ask, could one write about any religious institution and ignore the most notorious aspect of its recent history? In a subsequent article in The New York Sun, Halberstam's mother, Devorah, related that she called Elliott to ask why she had omitted the story of her son's murder from the feature on the mosque. Elliott replied that "she knew nothing about it." This was, at the very least, an indictment of the reporter's research skills, which ought to have earned her the humiliation of an editor's note acknowledging the mistake, not journalism's greatest prize. But there is more wrong here than just one missing fact. It is that the entire thesis of Elliott's work was to portray Shata and his mosque as a force for moderation. Setting up her subject, Elliott insists that "imams like Shata - men who embrace American freedom and condemn the radicals they feel have tainted their faith - rarely make the news." While Shata did not give the sermon that inspired Baz, he did praise the Hamas terror group, and spoke of its leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, as a "lion of Palestine [who] has been martyred." As even Elliott was constrained to note, Shata had also praised a Palestinian female suicide bomber, Reem Al-Reyashi, as a "martyr." Absent from the feature is any attempt at a serious discussion of how a religious leader who praises terrorists can at the same time pretend to be fostering interfaith dialogue with Jews and Christians. Shata utters coded responses such as, "What I may see as terrorism, you may not see that way," without follow-up from his interviewer. Instead, what Elliott was interested in was the supposed plight of US Muslims in a hostile society. This is in spite of the fact that attacks on Muslims in post-9/11 America have been notably rare, and that American leaders have gone out of their way to distinguish Islam from Islamist extremists. Like more recent Times coverage of the Council on American Islamic Relations, in which those apologists for terror have been allowed to rebrand themselves as a "civil-rights group," the reporting here leaves little doubt that this is a newspaper on a mission. The result is not only shoddy journalism; it is a politically inspired muddle that leaves us knowing only those elements of the life of Shata and his mosque that he wishes to present to us. Both Elliott and Duranty crossed the same line when they allowed their agendas to dictate their coverage. While Duranty covered up genocide, dishonesty about Islamist extremism is no less egregious. What this proves is that those who imagined that Duranty was a relic of journalism's past were wrong. That a travesty such as Elliott's "imam" would bring a Pulitzer is a disgrace that again taints the reputation of both the prize and the Times. The writer is executive editor of The Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.