A few days ago, to the chagrin of many, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Al-Jazeera. The Arab channel offered real news, said Clinton, while American channels were busy with "a million commercials," "arguments between talking heads," and "the kind of stuff that ... is not particularly informative."
The shabby quality of international reportage on American TV is apparent to anyone who has experienced television news elsewhere. What's less apparent is how misinformed many Americans are becoming as a result.
The Pew Research Center found that Americans in 2007 knew less about politics and international affairs than they did in 1989. Almost a third could not name the Vice President. And this was during the reign of Dick Cheney, the most powerful VP in history.
The misinformation is stark when it comes to Islam. A year and a half ago, Media Tenor, a research organization, analyzed 9,268 statements that American evening TV news made about Islam. It found that negative perspectives ruled. Across the 32 months analyzed, less than 10 percent of TV statements had positive things to say about Islam.
Moreover, while 90 percent of TV discussions of Christianity were about religious aspects, only 17 percent of discussions of Islam were about the religion itself. The coverage of Islam was mostly about violence and militancy.
The result has been a rise in the number of Americans who simply associate Islam with violence. Back in early 2002, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, 25 percent of Americans thought that Islam was more violent than other religions. Now, a decade later, 40 percent do.
Extend these trends into the future, and you end up with a hazardous mix: paranoid propaganda by the leadership, gullible consumption of it by the public, knee-jerk reactions by society, and persecution of minorities.
The current hearings on Muslim radicalism in America, organized by Representative Peter King, are part of the same malaise of ignorance that Hillary Clinton diagnosed. As King himself stated, negating hopes that he might be neutral as a moderator, Muslims are "an enemy living amongst us." It was a short stretch indeed to go from misinformation to foregone conclusion.
When conclusions are preordained, facts cease to matter. So it doesn't matter that Muslims in the US are richer, more integrated, and more mainstream than counterparts in Europe. It doesn't matter that a majority of US Muslims identify themselves as Americans first, and then Muslims. (Compare that to Britain: only 19 percent of Muslims there see themselves as British first.)
Never mind that a huge majority of Muslim Americans say that suicide bombing is never justified. It also doesn't matter that among Muslims here, support for al-Qaeda has been rare, and that last year Muslim communities helped law enforcement foil three-quarters of all Al-Qaeda plots against the United States.
What matters, regardless of facts, is the barrage of violent images and narratives, and the distrust injected into people in consequence. Americans are twice as likely to feel prejudiced against Muslims, compared to how they feel about other major religions.
The hearings organized by Peter King could not have happened without this milieu of bias, constructed over the past decade. To those, including King, who inhabit this milieu, the remote possibility of homegrown terror seems immediate, while the overwhelming trends of peace, integration and cooperation are forced backstage.
The hearings should have focused on integration, not radicalization. Congress should lead the public in understanding why Muslims in America are in fact better integrated and less radical than those in other Western countries. And then Congress should identify the obstacles to further integration, including both minority resentment and mainstream prejudice. Isn't that a more promising path toward security than to fan populist hysteria between already-insecure communities?
Equally needed are hearings--not just hearings, but soul-searching--about the malaise of American news. How can TV coverage become less vacuous and less sensational? How can it be more informative and spur intelligent conversation?
The media will make a real difference if it can increase public knowledge about Islam and Muslims. Just consider this: Those who do not know any Muslims are twice as likely to express "a great deal" of prejudice against Muslims. And 47 percent of Americans do not know any Muslim.