Mosque illustration

Two conservative websites have publicly accused me of fraternizing with Islamic terrorists. One never interviewed me. The other did for an hour – but never quoted me.

So much for “conservative journalism.”

Actually, that’s not fair. I’ve been quoted by Breitbart, and accurately. Of course, I wasn’t doing something they hated.

In this case, I’m talking to Muslims. That freaks out many (but thankfully not all) conservatives.

I’m the creator and purveyor of an event called Muslimedia. It’s sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest journalism organization. I’m SPJ’s longest-serving board member.

SPJ gave a me a grant to do three apparently scary things…

1. Introduce local journalists to local Muslim leaders.
2. Hold those meetings in local mosques.
3. Feed everyone a free halal lunch.

That’s really the whole thing. Since last year, it’s happened in California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Oklahoma. Others are planned for Iowa, Maryland, and Washington, DC.

But according to a website called Militant Islam Monitor, Muslimedia is really just a series of “indoctrination events” designed to “inculcate journalists with an Islamist victimhood narrative while attempting to convert them to Islam.”

Wow, I didn’t know a Jew like me was trying to convert journalists to a religion I don’t believe in. Thanks, Militant Islam Monitor, for explaining my evil motives to myself.

This “report” was published last December, a few weeks after our first Muslimedia. It quoted almost everything that was posted online promoting and covering the event. But no one spoke with me.

So I tried to speak with Militant Islam Monitor. Alas, if you look at the story, the link to “Contact” doesn’t work. It wasn’t worth any more of my time, so I forgot the whole thing. Until August.

That’s when a guy named Ben Baird asked to interview me about Muslimedia. He identified himself as a conservative writer, which unsettled some other SPJers but not me.

I much prefer interviewers who are clear about their politics. Liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter. You know what makes my butt pucker? Slick reporters telling me they agree with everything I say and admire everything I do. That’s when I prepare for an ambush.

Ben Baird and I chatted via email and spoke for an hour on the phone. I agreed with almost nothing he said, but I liked him anyway. Still do, even though you can surely see where this story is going.

Last week, Baird published his 1,200-word story on the website of The American Spectator. Unlike Militant Islam Monitor, The American Spectator is well known. It’s been around since 1924.

Baird’s big problem with Muslimedia isn’t the concept. It’s the guest list. Specifically, I’d consulted an organization called the Council on American-Islamic Relations, better known as CAIR.

Baird’s story says CAIR “organizes the events with the Society of Professional Journalists” and “the forum serves as an opportunity to deceive the press and attain legitimacy for its extremist worldview.”

Except that’s not what I told Baird. I don’t recall my exact words, but Baird sure can – he asked if he could record our conversation. (I replied, “Sure, it’d be hypocritical for a journalist to say no.”)

Anyway, this is what I told Baird…

In November 2014, CAIR leaders started complaining to SPJ about the mainstream media’s coverage of Muslims. SPJ’s policy isn’t to respond – yeah, I find that ironic and depressing, too – so I did so myself. Over several months, CAIR officials and I debated via email and phone. I agreed about some things, disagreed on others.

I learned a lot during these exchanges. I also felt I taught a lot about how journalism works. So I created Muslimedia to do the same for others. I asked CAIR to introduce me to Islamic Centers – because I didn’t relish the idea of cold-calling them and asking, “Hey, can a bunch of journalists come over for lunch?”

From there, I worked directly with those Islamic Centers in the host cities. Yet Baird wrote….

SPJ’s code of ethics simply demands that its members, “Seek truth and report it.” The truth is that CAIR is far too radical to speak for moderate Muslims. Yet, by partnering with this subversive Islamist group and sponsoring talks at some of the most secretive and radical mosques in the country, SPJ succeeds only in amplifying some of Islam’s most militant voices — to the detriment of ordinary Muslim Americans.

How does Baird prove “CAIR is far too radical to speak for moderate Muslims”? Since he cites the SPJ Code of Ethics, here’s how he violates that…

• Selective facts. Baird writes, “CAIR was designated as a terrorist entity by the United Arab Emirates in 2014.” Of course, the United States hasn’t done that, even with President Trump and a Republican Congress.

• Misleading summaries. Baird writes, “Although the terror-tied Islamist group seems to have persuaded the media that it represents Muslim Americans, a 2011 Gallup poll shows that 88 percent of this population believes that CAIR fails to represent their interests.” Yet when you click that link and scroll down to Page 25, you find the poll question was, “Which national Muslim American organization, if any, do you feel most represents your interests?” CAIR ranks first, although with less than a quarter of those polled – because “many Muslims do not feel there is a national Muslim-American organization that represents them.”

…and there’s more I won’t bore you with.

In our hourlong call, Baird offered me specific examples of CAIR members espousing terrorist beliefs, then asked me to comment. I replied something like this: There are assholes everywhere, in everything. I try not to define a group just by its assholes. Heaven forbid journalism should be judged that way. Or conservatism.

So why didn’t Baird quote me at all? I asked him this weekend. He promptly replied…

Understand that this report was an op-ed, not a news story, primarily about CAIR’s influence on the mainstream media, and SPJ’s role in this is secondary.

But the best op-ed writers describe their opponents best arguments – then knock them down. Not that I’m a CAIR expert, but in my limited dealings with the organization, I saw nothing remotely terroristic. Or even antagonistic.

Baird’s other explanation for ignoring my interview: “I ended up cutting thousands of words from my initial draft in order to create an article brief enough that publications could run it.”

This reveals a neglected truth: Journalism ain’t easy.

Ben Baird is a terrible journalist. But he’s a good guy.

Thing is, he’s new to journalism. He spent a decade in the Army, rising to platoon sergeant. He served three years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“In 2007, my unit was the first to engage with ISIS,” he told me. “I was medically and honorably discharged in 2015, after which I completed a degree in Middle Eastern studies from the American Military University.”

So this guy has seen more Muslims and studied more Islam than I ever will. Yet he let me challenge his core beliefs even as he challenged mine, and we both may have budged just a little.

While he’s anti-CAIR, he’s not anti-Muslim. Baird deeply opposes those who label all Muslims as terrorists – and he’s seen for himself how that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“The more we push them out to the fringes of our society, the less likely they are to moderate themselves,” Baird says. “That’s something I faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I wish Baird could write as nuanced as he thinks. Maybe that’ll come. All I know is, he’s helping me with my next SPJ-funded event. It’s called Under Fire, and it’ll teach journalists about guns – at a gun range, where many will fire a weapon for the first time.

Why? Because after every mass shooting, journalists screw up the descriptions of the weapons. When it comes to both journalism and guns, accuracy matters. Who better to help me than a sergeant who wants to be a writer?

So stay tuned for that controversy. I wonder if some left-wing websites will decry Under Fire – without interviewing me or Baird. That’d be funny.