The NASCAR community is abuzz today with reports that NBC’s news magazine “Dateline NBC” sent a hidden-camera crew to Martinsville Speedway last weekend, as part of a planned report on racism in this country in the aftermath of 9/11. “Dateline” reportedly paid a group to stand near a Martinsville ticket booth clad in traditional Muslim garb, in an apparent attempt to incite acts of discrimination.
Internet and print sources have publicized an e-mail allegedly written by Tarek El-Messidi, who The Wall Street Journal describes as a former Muslim Student Association activist who studied Islam with the radical Muslim Brotherhood while in college. In that e-mail, El-Messidi wrote, “I have been talking with a producer of the NBC Dateline show, and…they are looking for some Muslim male candidates…who would be willing to go to non-Muslim gatherings and see if they attract any discriminatory comments or actions while being filmed. They are looking for men who actually "look Muslim". They want a guy with no foreign accent whatsoever, a good thick beard, an outgoing personality, and someone willing to wear a kufi/skullcap during the filming. They also want someone who is fairly well accomplished and has contributed to American society at large in some meaningful way. That said, I'm urgently looking for someone who can be filmed this April 1st weekend at a NASCAR event in Virginia. NBC is willing to fly in someone, and cover their weekend expenses. A few weeks later, NBC will fly all the filmed participants to New York City to interview them as a group about their experience and thoughts on discrimination they've faced in America. The show, if approved by NBC (highly likely), is expected to air sometime this summer. Please forward this to all Muslim lists you can.”
When “Sirius Speedway” attempted to reach officials at “Dateline NBC” for comment, our calls were not immediately returned. Lars Larson, host of the nationally syndicated “Lars Larson Show” on Westwood One Radio, contacted NBC official Jenny Tartikoff and received an e-mailed response denying that NBC had authorized El-Messidi's e-mail, and saying, “’Dateline’ is looking into this story. We were intrigued by the results of a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, and other articles regarding increasing anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States. It's very early on in our newsgathering process, but be assured we will be visiting a number of locations across the country, and are confident that our reporting team is pursuing this story in a fair manner.”
Tartikoff’s definition of “newsgathering” is questionable, at best. Clearly, “Dateline NBC” went to Martinsville with a storyline already in mind. Their goal was to ignite a racial incident, and prove that anti-Muslim sentiment is alive and well in this country. Rather than simply reporting on any incidents that may have occurred elsewhere, NBC elected to take the easy way out, manufacturing an incident of their own while violating virtually every tenet of responsible journalism.
Not surprisingly, NASCAR reacted angrily to news that one of its television partners had attempted to paint the sport in such an unfavorable light. NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said yesterday, “It's unfortunate that a respected news organization like NBC would stoop to a stunt like this. The role of a news organization should be to report the news, not try to create it. This is an obvious attempt to provoke a reaction. I am confident our fans won't take the bait, but will treat all people with the same courtesy and respect with which they would expect to be treated."
Are there bigots and religiously intolerant people in attendance at NASCAR races? Absolutely. But the same can be said of football, basketball, baseball and golf. By targeting NASCAR’s fanbase as being more likely to provide an ugly incident for its cameras to record – as opposed to the Masters or the NCAA Final Four – NBC News reveals itself to be as prejudiced as those its purports to expose.
One listener on Wednesday’s show compared NBC’s tactics to yelling, “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Actually, it was much worse. What NBC did was like pouring gasoline on the floor of that theatre, striking a match, and waiting for the inevitable reaction. What would NBC’s response have been if an incident had occurred, and someone – Muslim “plant” or innocent bystander – had been seriously hurt or killed? How would they have explained the international incident that almost certainly would have ensued, and the impact the resulting wave of international ill will would have had on our military men and women in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries?
Would their story have seemed so important then? I think not.
If anti-Muslim incidents are indeed occurring in the United States, “Dateline NBC” should have no trouble uncovering them and reporting the details. Unfortunately, they chose to forego this fundamental journalistic exercise, in favor of a tawdry, attention grabbing, on-camera incident of their own making. For the record, this is the same “Dateline NBC” that paid a multi-million dollar judgement to a major U.S. automaker a few years ago, after using an incendiary device to cause an explosion during a staged crash involving a vehicle they alleged to be unsafe.
Apparently, NBC News learned nothing from that episode. And now, “Dateline’s” producers will justifiably face the heat all over again, after another shocking display of journalistic ineptitude.
There is a bright side to this story, however. Despite their best efforts, “Dateline NBC” was unable to record a single act of abuse or discrimination last weekend. Their “Rent A Muslims” were treated with respect and dignity, leaving NBC with nothing more than a camera full of boring, non-confrontational footage.
I look forward to seeing “Dateline NBC” use that footage to illustrate the tale of tolerance that took place last Sunday in Martinsville, Virginia, on a day when their ugly premise went so wonderfully wrong.