When a powerful political figure attacks the work or integrity of a reporter, it’s frequently considered newsworthy. Does the politician have a legitimate beef? Is the reporter out of line? Or is the politician full of it? Is he throwing his weight around in a distasteful abuse of his position? The letter to the editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Minnesota state Rep. Mindy Greiling calling for the firing of Star Tribune metro columnist Katherine Kersten raises all these questions.
Greiling is a poltical figure who wields substantial power as the chair of the state House of Representatives K-12 finance division. In her letter to the editor of the Star Tribune, Greiling accused Kersten of “reckless journalistic standards” and “gross distortion of the facts” in Kersten’s two columns reporting facts suggestive of the illegal sectarian practices of the Tarek ibn Ziyad public K-8 charter school in suburban St. Paul. Greiling’s letter, however, fails to cite a single fact on which Kersten erred.
Minnesota Monitor is a left-wing Internet news site. It’s the kind of site that all but calls for moonbats to disrupt the annual dinner of the Center of the American Experiment (the conservative Minneapolis-based think tank on whose board I sit) featuring John Bolton this coming Thursday, as it does in this post. Although the Star Tribune itself doesn’t act as if there is a story here, Minnesota Monitor rightly treats Greiling’s attack on Kersten as newsworthy. Because Greiling’s letter fails to cite any fact that Kersten got wrong, the Monitor asked Greiling where Kersten went astray. In the audio clip in this Monitor post, Greiling responds in her own fashion.
Greiling leveled her attack on Kersten based on nothing more than a Potemkin-village tour of the school by imam and school principal Asad Zaman. Greiling does not note that Kersten sought, but was refused, access to the school by Zaman. On the basis of her guided tour, Greiling calls for Kersten’s dismissal. Although she is the head of a legislative education committee, Greiling has no interest in the legal issues raised by Kersten’s TIZA columns.
Greiling is not interested in the school’s entanglement with religion and with the Muslim American Society Minnesota chapter. She is not interested in the school’s highly problematic endorsement of and support for Islam. She is not interested in the fact that taxpayer funds are used to support a school that may be violating the law.
Greiling takes at face value Zaman’s statements about prayer being student-led and voluntary. Greiling does not dispute that teachers take students to the bathroom for the Islamic washing ritual prior to prayer, that teachers take students to prayer services, that teachers participate in the Friday prayer service, or that the school has recruited parents to help with prayer. Greling relies entirely on Zaman’s assurances that all is well at TIZA, but a rational person might think that the issue bears a little more scrutiny than Greiling affords it.
Greiling apparently didn’t ask how second-graders could be initiating and leading prayer. She regurgitates Zaman’s reassurance that the prayer services simply constitute the lawful “accommodation” of the students’ religious practices. According to Greiling, “It was clear they were very up on laws what they need to do to accommodate religion as any school would do.”
The constitutional test, however, is not whether prayer is voluntary or student-led. If it were, public schools could have student-led prayers in the classroom every morning, and those who didn’t wish to participate could opt out. The test is whether prayer is student-initiated. At TIZA, the schedule is arranged around religious observance and teachers lead students to ritual washing and prayer. The prayer appears to be school-initiated, not student-initiated.
Greiling claims that TIZA’s relationship with the Muslim American Society of Minnesota is merely landlord/tenant, like that of other charter schools that rent from churches. This does not appear to be true. The two institutions share a building. Their boards and leadership have overlapped. The school building contains a mosque run by MAS Minnesota. MAS Minnesota appears to run the Friday prayers and after-school Islamic Studies instruction. MAS Minnesota initially planned a private Islamic school at the same location.
Greiling does not acknowledge that TIZA leadership presents the school as secular in public documents, but that the MAS Minnesota chapter presents it as religious in its convention program. In one public document, for example, the school boasts of a day care center and a youth center on site. In the MAS convention program, they are both described as Islamic. Greiling shows no interest in the nature of MAS itself.
Greiling states that Zaman is “reputable, has credibility,” in part because he is “not rooted in any [political] party.” In fact, Zaman was a delegate to the 2004 Democratic national convention. He assisted (Democratic) Minnesota Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison’s campaign. Greiling to the contrary notwithstanding, Zaman is a partisan Democratic activist.
Greiling regurgitates Zaman’s reassurance that TIZA has after-school activities besides religious instruction, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Kersten asked Zaman to list these activities and he refused, though he said there were several. Kersten posted his response on the Star Tribune Web site. Did Greiling think to ask whether the Muslim American Society runs the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts programs?
Greiling purports to take issue with Kersten’s reference to the observation of fasting by all students during Ramadan. Kersten cited a St. Paul Pioneer Press article on the school quoting a parent saying that all students fasted. Greiling says that some students fast and others do not. However, only Muslims over the age of puberty are expected to fast. That some TIZA students fast and others do not is not by itself evidence of choice or secularism.
According to Greiling, Kersten wrote that TIZA students were required to engage in religious activity even if they are not Muslim. The only question raised by this asserrtion is one of reading comprehension on the part of Greiling. Kersten reported that the school is not neutral on religion, but rather encourages and supports Islam.
Even friendly outside observers such as Kevin Featherly have noted that virtually all TIZA students are Muslim (“Despite Zaman’s assurances, a visitor might well mistake Tarek ibn Ziyad for an Islamic school….Headscarves are voluntary, but virtually all the girls wear them….”). Zaman had no dispute with Featherly’s article.
This past Friday morning, I wrote Greiling via her Web site:
Dear Rep. Greiling: I write for the Power Line Web site (powerlineblog.com). I read your letter to the editor of the Star Tribune calling for Katherine Kersten’s resignation based on what you call her “gross distortion of facts” regarding TIZA. I have carefully read her columns and related material as well as interviewed Morgan Brown of the Department of Education. I find your letter itself a gross abuse of power and a reckless assault on the truth. In this post I set forth the facts and call for your resignation.
Please let me know what facts you dispute and on what ground. I will post your response in its entirety on our site.
In this post I characterized Greiling’s letter to the Star Tribune as an act of thuggery. We’ll see if Greiling is up for a fair fight, or if she prefers to hit and run.
JOHN adds: There is a major 1st Amendment issue here. Greiling, a public official, has demanded that the Star Tribune fire Kersten for writing two columns with which Greiling disagrees. Can one imagine the furor if a member of the Bush administration demanded that a columnist be fired for writing something–about the Iraq war, say–of which the administration official disapproves? Or to take an example closer to home, what would have been the reaction (from the Star Tribune and elsewhere) if Governor Tim Pawlenty had demanded that Strib columnist Nick Coleman be fired for absurdly claiming that it was Pawlenty’s fault the 35W bridge collapsed? In either instance, the howls of outrage cannot be imagined. Yet Greiling’s call for Kersten’s firing has been met with an odd silence from all liberal precincts, including the paper itself.
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