Imam's Group Trained NY Times Reporter Who Wrote Glowing Ground Zero Mosque Article

A New York Times reporter who co-authored two fawning articles on the Ground Zero mosque in 2009 and 2010 was previously trained by a group led by the mosque's organizer, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, according to the group's website.

The journalist, Sharaf Mowjood, participated in an April, 2009 media training program run by Rauf's American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA), reported the Investigative Project on Terrorism on Sept. 20. Rauf founded ASMA in 1997, and currently serves as the group's CEO.

Mowjood's first article on the controversial Ground Zero mosque – a glowing, 1,200-word piece titled "Muslim Prayers and Renewal Near Ground Zero" – was co-authored with Ralph Blumenthal in December, 2009. All eight of the sources cited in the piece said they approved of the Ground Zero project or lauded its leader Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Mowjood was also a contributing reporter to a flattering front-page profile on Rauf that ran in the Times on Aug. 22.

ASMA, which ran the “Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow” media training session that Mowjood attended, pointed to the reporter's work as evidence that its training program was effective.

“Media trainings showed immediate results,” claimed a 2009 report on the ASMA website, noting that “Sharaf Mawjood [sic], a journalism student at Columbia University and trained at the [Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow] conference, wrote a compelling story about the Muslim community's plan to establish a center near Ground Zero. The story was published on the front page of the New York Times with Sharaf as co-author.”

According to the ASMA website, the conference “focused specifically on the media. It offered participants a diverse range of intensive media trainings, imparting the [Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow] in attendance with concrete tools to become effective media spokespeople.” The website said that the conference was held in partnership with the Cordoba Initiative, the organization behind the Ground Zero mosque – another group which is led by Rauf.

The Times' Metro editor Joe Sexton denied that Mowjood was trained by ASMA, telling the IPT that the reporter “attended a lecture sponsored by ASMA in 2008. He was not a presenter or participant. He signed the sign-in sheet.”

But the IPT noted that a photo from the event, which shows Mowjood seated at a conference table littered with papers while watching another participant speak, “indicates the session was more than a lecture.”

In addition to his ties with ASMA, Times' reporter Mowjood also held a government lobbying position at the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) up until at least March of 2008. CAIR, which calls itself a "grassroots civil rights and advocacy group," has come under fire in the past for its alleged ties to international terrorist organizations.

Excerpts from Mowjood's work could pass as press releases for groups like CAIR or ASMA. His Times articles were extremely favorable toward Rauf and the Ground Zero mosque.

“Those who have worked with [the imam] say if anyone could pull off what many regard to be a delicate project, it would be Imam Feisal [Rauf], whom they described as having built a career preaching tolerance and interfaith understanding," read Mowjood's enthusiastically pro-Rauf article written in December, 2009.

Mowjood's story made no mention of legitimate criticisms of the planned mosque. Instead, opponents of the prayer center were sources of potential anti-Muslim violence.

“[T]here is anxiety among those involved or familiar with the project that it could very well become a target for anti-Muslim attacks,” wrote Mowjood and his co-author Ralph Blumenthal. “Joan Brown Campbell ...who is a supporter of Imam Feisal, acknowledged the possibility of a backlash from those opposed to a Muslim presence at ground zero.”

Mowjood was also a contributing reporter to an Aug. 22 Times article on Rauf, in which the imam is described as the leader of “a truly American brand of Islam [that] could modernize and moderate the faith worldwide.”

The 1,900-word article quotes no critics of the mosque, featuring mainly friends of Rauf who say things like “[he] is an excellent schmoozer” and “[to] stereotype him as an extremist is just nuts.”

Mowjood's background as a CAIR lobbyist, as well as his attendance at an ASMA media training event, may conflict with the Times' ethical standards. The paper's code of ethics says that reporters “should be vigilant in avoiding any activity that might pose an actual or apparent conflict of interest and thus threaten the newspaper's ethical standing.”

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