Public yawns while press freaks out over mosque story

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

NBC's Meet the Press was positively mosque obsessed on Sunday.

Host David Gregory discussed the controversy surrounding the planned Islamic center in downtown New York with a bevy of guests. He talked about the unfolding story with Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, former Republican congressmen Rick Lazio and Dick Armey, and Michigan's Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm. Gregory discussed the controversy with conservative writers Jeffrey Goldberg and Paul Gigot and with the BBC's Katty Kay.

Mosque-mania reigned on the talk show set this week as it did, to varying degrees, on all the recent Sunday shows.

Recapping the day's program with a blog entry, NBC's Gregory announced that "the issue that is trumping all right now is the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero."

This was the headline for Gregory's blog post:

As midterm loom, mosque near Ground Zero dominates debate

The implication was quite clear: Not only is the mosque story one that's dominating our news landscape, but it has clear partisan, political implications for the upcoming midterm elections. Meaning, the story has become a very, very big deal (it's "trumping all right now"), so naturally the mainstream media are throwing as much time and attention to the Islamic center controversy as possible.

Gregory has hardly been alone in that analysis/justification. An Associated Press headline recently declared that "mosque talk" represented "another hurdle for Dems," while ABC News announced that by recently addressing the controversy, President Obama had launched the story "into campaigns across the country" and that (anonymous) Democrats were privately furious about the development.

But while the Beltway press continues to flood the zone with an onslaught of often dubious Islamic center coverage and commentary, a curious disconnect has emerged: Nobody cares about the story.

OK, "nobody" is an exaggeration. But there's growing evidence that voters, news consumers, and even New Yorkers aren't nearly as interested in the story as the press -- or conservative partisans --pretend we are. Plus, we have conclusive polling evidence that for a vast majority of Americans, the mosque story won't have any effect on how they vote in November.

It's true that polling indicates that Americans oppose the construction of the Islamic center near Ground Zero. But there's no indication that voters or news consumers care about the story. And honestly, why should they? Why would a local development issue located hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away weigh in the minds of voters for the November elections?

Is the Islamic center debate interesting, and does it carry with it some deeper political and cultural ramifications? Sure. And should it be covered? Absolutely. But a three-week running, front-page story? No way.

But shhh -- don't tell reporters, producers, and pundits. They're too busy co-sponsoring a right-wing production, burying us in an avalanche of mosque coverage and announcing that it's the "the issue that is trumping all right now."

How does the press know? Because the press says so. And you know the drill: When the right-wing freaks out over a story, the press instinctively asks how high they should jump. (Why else did the press play up the Michelle Obama vacation nonstory?) The dirty little secret is that the Beltway press loves to "cover" stories where very little journalism is required, and (surprise!) the GOP Noise Machine specializes in manufacturing them.

And did I mention there's been an avalanche of coverage? According to TVEyes.com, during the period between August 15-22, here were the approximate number of times "mosque"* was mentioned on the following cable outlets:

-CNN: 290

-Fox News: 550

-CNN Headline News: 170

-MSNBC: 340

Add in the week prior to Aug. 15-22, and that cable TV total balloons to more than 1,800 hits. And when network television reporting from that period is included, the number climbs to almost 1,900.

The local New York newspapers -- which, of course, include one of the major U.S. dailies -- loaded their pages with "mosque" stories. During the recent two-week span, The New York Times, New York Post, and Daily News published more than 160 columns and articles that referenced "mosque," according to a search of Nexis. Even even outside of the New York City metropolitan area, newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, Washington Times, and The Boston Globe went overboard, publishing nearly dozens and dozens of items about the distant mosque story.

But did news consumers actually care about the story or even follow it? Not so much.

For instance, during the period of August 12-15, substantially more news consumers said they heard about the JetBlue attendant who made his two-beer exit down the rescue chute than heard about the Islamic center controversy unfolding in lower Manhattan, according to a weekly Pew Research Center survey.

And the same survey showed that among news stories consumers were following "most closely," the mosque debate did not even register.

Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll asked about Obama's recent remarks regarding the Islamic center construction plans, which were widely covered in the press. But an eye-opening 41 percent of respondents said they didn't know enough about what Obama said to comment. Among independent voters, the nonresponse rate was even higher: 47 percent.

I'd sure like to know the last news story that was "trumping all," as NBC's Gregory put it, and nearly half of America's independent voters didn't even know what the story was. (Has familiarity with the story increased in the last week? No doubt. But that still doesn't justify the over-the-top coverage we've seen.)

According to a Time poll, 74 percent of Americans say the mosque issue won't have any impact on how they vote in November. That's right, 74 percent.

In terms of New Yorkers, they don't appear to be any more entranced by the mosque story than the rest of America. Here, the evidence is bit more anecdotal, but look at these two photographs. The first one shows Lazio, who is running for governor in New York, appearing before the New York Landmarks Commission in July as it weighed the request for the Islamic center. Lazio is an outspoken opponent of the Islamic center.

According to one report, the commission's July meeting was rescheduled and moved to a 2,000-person auditorium at Hunter College in order to accommodate the anticipated large crowd that would be on hand to debate the mosque. But as you can see from the Lazio photo, and confirmed in this report, the turnout for the meeting was light; fewer than 200 people showed up.

Turnout was also light on the day the Landmarks Commission gave its final OK to the Islamic center project. In fact, members of the media covering the commission's vote appeared to outnumber mosque opponents that day.

Perhaps it was that collective shrug of the shoulders that forced Muslim critic and mosque basher Pam Geller to simply fabricate a crowd estimate in June, when she lead a rally against the proposed Islamic center. On her blog, Geller boasted that between 8,000 to 10,000 people attended her rally. According to local news accounts, however, Geller's estimate was a complete fabrication.

Thanks to the GOP Noise Machine and the Beltway press corps, the downtown Islamic center became a runaway news event this month. There's just very little evidence that news consumers or voters cared about the story, let alone required nonstop coverage.

*It's possible that a small percentage of the "mosque" mentions detected by TVEyes.com were not in reference to the Islamic center controversy.

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