Reflecting on prayer rugs and presidential tweets, Islamophobia and factual religion reporting ...

Amid all the attention on the weekend’s big brouhaha, here’s a (sort of) religion story that you might have missed.

OK, maybe story is putting it a bit too strongly. Let’s try this instead: Here’s a religion-related item that might have escaped your attention.

I’m talking about President Donald Trump’s recent tweet in which he referenced a Washington Examiner report with this headline:

Border rancher: 'We've found prayer rugs out here. It's unreal'

Here is the lede:

LORDSBURG, N.M. — Ranchers and farmers near the U.S.-Mexico border have been finding prayer rugs on their properties in recent months, according to one rancher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by cartels who move the individuals.

The mats are pieces of carpet that those of the Muslim faith kneel on as they worship.

"There’s a lot of people coming in not just from Mexico," the rancher said. "People, the general public, just don’t get the terrorist threats of that. That’s what’s really scary. You don’t know what’s coming across. We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal. It’s not just Mexican nationals that are coming across."

Her comments were part of a larger conversation about how many in the region believe migrants are coming to the U.S. illegally from all over the world, not just Central America.

A GetReligion reader shared the link with me and noted:

Got press because of the President's tweet. But no one asks the question, in the follow-up, “So What?’ What's wrong with prayer rugs?"

Good question.

My Googling didn’t turn up much in the way of straight reporting on the issue. But I did find several commentary and “fact check” pieces from major media delving into the question. Welcome to journalism, 21st century style!

Interestingly, the reporting of an unsubstantiated claim from an anonymous source seemed to bother the elite news sites that covered this.

Hi pot, meet kettle, as Vox noted that the conservative-leaning Examiner’s chief congressional correspondent responded:

Actually, flimsy sourcing is flimsy sourcing, regardless of a publication’s ideological bent. Wouldn’t it be nice if anonymous sources in Washington news reports were a whole lot more scarce across the board? But I digress …

Back to the prayer rugs: Erik Wemple, the Washington Post’s media critic, offered this helpful context:

The invocation of “prayer rugs” is key. They are a “traditional way for many Muslims to ensure the cleanliness of their place of prayer, and to create an isolated space to concentrate in prayer.”

Wemple also points out some selectivity in terms of what part of the rancher’s quote the Examiner included in the written version of the story:

The story leaves out a remark from the rancher that prefaces the quote: “Obviously don’t have ... any proof of it.” That disclaimer does surface, however, in a video that the Washington Examiner posted along with the story. Also on the video but not in the story is a question about whether the rancher has seen “some of these people.” She responds, “No, I’ve never run into any what they’d consider OTMs...I’ve never seen any Middle Easterners. I’ve seen prayer rugs out here."

A “fact check” piece by the New York Times said the president’s endorsement of the article lacked evidence and quoted a skeptical professor:

Asma Afsaruddin, a professor of Islamic studies at Indiana University, said that prayer rugs were meant to be kept clean and doubted that they would be deserted by practicing Muslims.

“Standing in a clean place is a requirement of Islamic prayer,” she said. “Many of these rugs have images of the Kaaba in Mecca and other religious symbols on them. For all these reasons, they would not be just casually tossed around or carelessly discarded to be desecrated by others.”

Separately, an “Internet Culture Analysis” from the Post explored “How an old, far-right meme about Muslim ‘prayer rugs’ at the border became a Trump tweet.”

Did anybody see a straight-news report on the president’s tweet? For example, I didn’t come up with an Associated Press story on the prayer rug claim.

Am I suggesting that AP should have covered it? Not necessarily.

If mainstream news organizations cover every Trump tweet as breaking news, they turn over their role as gatekeepers to the president. They put him control of deciding what’s news and where limited reporting resources should be devoted. To some extent, journalism — in my humble opinion — would be in much better shape if news organizations ignored the president’s social media stream more often and focused on what really matters.

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