Maine Newspaper controversy continues over 9-11 Ramadan story

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See above a detail of a screenshot from Portland Press Herald editor Richard Connor's column clarifying that he wasn't apologizing for running a Ramadan story on the front page Sept. 11. (Credit: Portland Press Herald)

A Maine newspaper’s publication of and subsequent apologies and clarifications for a 9-11 Ramadan story has received much criticism – and confusion.

Most recently, Richard L. Connor wrote in a Sept 19 column clarifying that he wasn’t apologizing for the Ramadan story, but he was apologizing for not covering the anniversary Sept. 11 on the front page that day.

The newspaper, The Portland Press Herald, received complaints for its story “A Show of Faith and Forgiveness,” which reported on the celebration of Eid al Fitr, “one of the holiest festivals in Islam.”  Some complaints can be read in the comments section of the story and on the newspaper’s Facebook page.

In response to the complaints, the newspaper’s editor and publisher, Richard L. Connor, wrote a letter to its readers, available in full here, apologizing for the story and photo.  Connor also posted an apology via the newspaper’s Facebook account here.

Connor’s initial apology explains that “we have acknowledged that we erred by at least not offering balance to the story and its prominent position on the front page.”  He further stated that the newspaper “should have handled this differently and with greater sensitivity toward” the Sept. 11 anniversary.

“Our editors believed that 3,000 persons marking the passage of a religious observance and congregating in Portland to do so was news.I believe that decision was correct but I also believe we should have handled it in a more sensitive way,” Connor wrote.

Later, Connor wrote in a Sept 19 column explaining that he should have simply written “Our coverage of the conclusion of the local Ramadan observance was excellent and we are proud of it. We did not adequately cover 9/11 on the 9/11 anniversary, which also should have been front-page news, in my opinion.”

But his apology “led to mischaracterization and misunderstanding,” Connor wrote, explaining that he only wanted to apologize for not covering the anniversary of Sept. 11 on the front page.  He wasn’t apologizing for covering the Muslim community on Sept. 11.

Connor noted that despite the controversy and comments, the Portland Press Herald hasn’t seen “mass subscription cancellations.”  See Connor’s full Sept 19 column here.

Media Criticism

Blogger and former Portland Press Herald employee Justin Ellis criticized the newspaper for its apology. “Unfortunately what Connor’s done is created a self-inflicted wound to his newspaper,” Ellis blogged.

“By apologising for a factual story portraying part of the community it covers, the Press Herald has damaged its ability to educate, betrayed the journalists who work there, alienated a part of their audience and shown that editorial control can be won by the power of the mob.”

Ellis also wrote that the apology to “one part of the community” came “at the expense of another.”

“In trying to mollify the outrage and indignation of readers upset over showing Muslims practicing their religion, the Press Herald has now helped to alienate Muslims in Portland and around Maine.”

Likewise, The University of Maine’s student newspaper editorialized, labeling the decision to apologize a “white-flag surrender of a spine,” because the newspaper didn’t stand up for its news judgment to put the Ramadan story on the front page.

“Not only does the apology signify a lack of faith in news-writing in Maine, it also serves to enforce connotations of racism by allowing for the Muslim community as a whole to be associated with terrorism, a swooping generalization that is disgracefully unfair.”

“The goal is to share the news, the truth, no matter the cost and not amend it in accordance to who you might upset.”

James Poniewozik’s pop culture and society blog for Time magazine expressed disappointment with the apology as well.

“Here’s where we are in America, 2010: There is now one group of Americans whose peaceful religious observance cannot be noted by decent people, unless it is “balanced” by the mention of a vile crime committed in 2001 by people, with a perverted idea of the same religion, from the other side of the world,” Poniewozik opined.

“So now we have a newspaper kowtowing to a national freakout, apologizing for the most innocuous kind of soft feature, because acknowledging that there are decent Muslims in America is offensive.”  Further, Poniewozik wrote that “the paper owed no one an apology. But it does now.”

iMediaEthics has e-mailed Richard Connor for comment and will update with any response.

UPDATE: 09/21/2010 11:47 AM EST: In an interview with NPR’s “On the Media,” Connor said he wasn’t retracting his first apology.  Connor added that he wasn’t apologizing for the Ramadan story and  that e-mails were “predominantly directed at the omission of more coverage of 9/11.”  See the full transcript here.

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Maine Newspaper controversy continues over 9-11 Ramadan story

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