NYT has second thoughts about “Sharia smear” on Obama
Thank you, Clark Hoyt. The public editor (ombudsman) of the New York Times has torn apart Edward Luttwak’s op-ed piece on Barack Obama supposedly being a Muslim apostate, right in the Grey Lady’s pages. In his Public Editor column on Sunday, Hoyt called it “a single, extreme point of view” and said the NYT should not simply publish opinion pieces based on patently false facts. We blogged about this last week when a leading Muslim scholar refuted Luttwak’s article. Luttwak is a military historian and conservative analyst of strategic issues who has advised the U.S. military, National Security Council and State Department. He lists his fields of expertise as “geoeconomics, strategy and national strategies and military policies” but not Islam.
“The Times Op-Ed page, quite properly, is home to a lot of provocative opinions,” Hoyt wrote. “But all are supposed to be grounded on the bedrock of fact. Op-Ed writers are entitled to emphasize facts that support their arguments and minimize others that don’t. But they are not entitled to get the facts wrong or to so mangle them that they present a false picture.”
Hoyt said he consulted five Islamic scholars at U.S. universities and “all of them said that Luttwak’s interpretation of Islamic law was wrong.” When the Times asked Luttwak to defend his view, he sent them an analysis of it by an unnamed scholar of Muslim law. He disagreed with Luttwak so strongly that he wrote to him: “You seem to be describing some anarcho-utopian version of Islamic legalism, which has never existed, and after the birth of the modern nation state will never exist.”
The public editor also noted that the Muslim world, far from being “horrified” by Obama’s supposed apostasy as Luttwak predicted, has shown no interest in this argument. That jibes with what we found. After Luttwak’s article appeared, Reuters correspondents looked around for public reactions in the Arabic-language media and found nothing. We decided not to actively seek out responses from experts there because that would only highlight an opinion we thought was wrong anyway.
One other point stood out. When Hoyt told him what the five different Muslim scholars had said, Luttwak retorted by accusing them of presenting a “gross misrepresentation” of Islam. Doesn’t this sound like the way the neo-cons disputed pre-Iraq war intelligence reports, dismissed U.N. inspectors (like Hans Blix at left) who found no weapons of mass destruction and argued the war would be a push-over? It turned out that was mostly opinion not based on facts too — and the Times had to issue what Slate’s media critic Jack Shafer called its “mini-culpa” for presenting some of these WMD opinions as fact in its news reporting.
As Hoyt concluded, “with a subject this charged, readers would have been far better served with more than a single, extreme point of view. When writers purport to educate readers about complex matters, and they are arguably wrong, I think The Times cannot label it opinion and let it go at that.”
We got some comments to our original post on this issue that defended Luttwak’s point of view. One said that an article challenging his thesis was “completely off base, misses the point entirely and is a waste of time to read.” Any rethinking going on out there after reading Hoyt’s critique?