Muslim NPR reporter reveals what it was like covering the campaign

Asma Khalid. Photo: Stephen Voss/NPRThe must-read story of the day is NPR reporter Asma Khalid’s, an Indiana native who signed on to cover the presidential campaign.

She writes that when she first started, she cried in her editor’s office when tweets targeted her with “raghead,” “terrorist,” “bitch” and “jihadi.”

She’s Muslim and she wears a head scarf while doing her job.

Some people recoiled at the sight of a Muslim reporter. But a GOP leader in Ohio brought her local maple syrup as a gift for the road “and then asked for a hug, or the couple at a Trump event in Florida who invited me to spend the weekend on their boat.”

In other words: everyone is different.

She has more stories about what happened to her on the trail, but this one, in particular, seemed significant for its portrayal of what journalists face ethically.

“These strange moments kept happening throughout my travels. So when I met Joy at a county GOP dinner in Colorado Springs, and she gave me her phone number and invited me to her house for tea, I took her up on the offer. She had wanted to chat casually, and I had some time to spare between afternoon interviews.

She told me I was the first journalist she had ever invited to her house. She asked me about my childhood in Indiana; she told me about hers in neighboring Kentucky. She asked me why and how I had become a reporter; she told me about her years as a math teacher.

And then she asked me what I thought about the election. And, as a journalist, I deflected. Sitting there at her kitchen counter, eating her homemade chocolate-chip cookies, I realized I was also likely the first Muslim who had ever been in her home.”

It’s an old debate in journalist circles. Should they reveal an informed opinion in conversation based on their expertise? Even when having tea, can’t they assess what they see? Do they really need to deflect in the name of some faux impartiality?

It was a horrible campaign, an embarrassment to the very principles of the Founding Fathers. Why not just say it?

Reporters have expertise; it’s not inconsistent with the craft’s principles to assess what we see.

But on the campaign trail, she was put in a horrible position; she was asked to defend her faith. That’s shameful by the yardstick of any reasonable person in America.

“The world is gray and nuanced, and so often my friends got the benefit of being composite people: Floridian, Catholic, scientist,” she writes in her essay.

“But often when voters saw me, all they saw was Muslim. They didn’t see Hoosier, tennis fiend, fashion-obsessed journo.”

She met a man in Florida who professed knowledge of Islam and told her that a Muslim ban was “risk mitigation,” and suggested the idea of internment camps.

His logic struck me in contradictory ways — one, that I was a good American and so should support a Muslim ban to protect my fellow Muslim citizens from internment camps, but, two, that I was a bad Muslim because I didn’t believe in killing people.

I felt humiliated — and said nothing. I couldn’t. It wasn’t my job. But what I would have said is: “I pray; I fast; I don’t steal; I try not to lie — these are all the basic universal morals that I always thought made for a true believer. And I don’t believe in killing people. So, does that make me a bad Muslim?”

In Ohio she went door-to-door with a campaign worker.

The young canvasser I was following knocked on a door, and Christina, a middle-age woman who works in information security, opened the door. She politely explained that “people maintaining their guns” was her main priority this election. She continued to answer the canvasser’s questions as her mother came to the porch, saw me and started yelling.

“You need to get off of my property,” she said with a scowl.

“Mom,” Christina said with exasperation. But her mother repeated herself more clearly and furiously.

“This is my property, and she needs to get off,” the woman said — glaring squarely at me. Never mind that there were two of us. And I was not the one asking questions; I was the silent one off to the side.

“Mom, they came here to talk to me,” Christina explained. And, eventually, her mom relented and went inside.

As her mother slammed the door behind her, Christina apologized: “Sorry, she’s not in the best of moods today.”

The canvasser went back to her list of questions, but I could hardly pay attention, because, inside, Christina’s mom was still yelling, and I could hear her in the background.

“There’s a Muslim on my front porch. It’s … ridiculous,” she shrieked.

She did nothing. She said nothing. She was a journalist, she writes, with headphones on and a microphone in her hand. She couldn’t step out of that role, to her credit. Being humilitated by bigots is part of the job.

And that’s the dilemma. She says she found America this year and felt unwelcomed in her own country.

That’s a story, not a sidebar or “reporter’s notbook” for later. Her essay, which apparently only appeared on NPR’s website, deserved to be on the radio, with its much larger audience, too. In the pushback against the cancer of “fake news,” we can’t be so afraid to tell the real story, regardless of how we find it.

[Update: Khalid was interviewed on All Things Considered. Audio is posted at the top of this page.]

When she wrote up her essay, she left out the last names of the people in it, according to an editor’s note attached to the piece.

“The intent of the piece is not to publicly shame anyone,” it said.

But it’s not the journalist’s job to protect people from shame either.