The Semantics of the "Ground Zero Mosque"

Friday, August 20, 2010


Political news this week was dominated by the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," but the Muslim community center at Park51 is neither at Ground Zero, nor is it chiefly a mosque. Late this week several news organizations including the AP issued memos which offered guidance as to how to cover this story. We talked to Yahoo! News media reporter Michael Calderone about the origin of this phrase and how it became media shorthand for this controversial story.

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Comments [46]

Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

Euphemisms and manipulation of language are new? An invention of those 'dumb' but apparently clever and cunning right-wingers? Seem to me that evolved and enlightened people on the Left side work hard (and successfully, in academia and journalism) to put over their own euphemisms, too. 'Affirmative action' comes to mind, as well as 'hate crime' (or the use of the word 'hate' in general), and 'pro-choice'. All are part of the shorthand of American political journalism, and all have their Orwellian tinge, if anyone is interested in the real issue of language and politics vs. partisan framing. The point is that no matter what you called it, the construction (if hurtful to the families of the 9/11 families) would have been unpopular if knowledge of the plan were generally circulated. Same with the other issues - sanitizing them with the terms above hasn't really changed anything.

Sep. 06 2010 01:31 PM
tungbo from nyc

While the demagogues and political opporunists are clearly culpable, one can see a real depth of passion that has been stirred. Unfortunately, much of that passion is fueled by ignorance. I repeatedly see people writing that they've never heard of any US muslims condemning the 911 attack. THAT is the true tragedy and failure of the US media.

In the past 10 years, I have rarely seen any depictions of muslims on TV or in the major print media that showed them as ordinary human beings; that showed them in diverse cultures following different religious practices. 99% of the news are related to the middle eastern conflicts and terrorism related stories. Is it any wonder that the US public is filled with cartoonish images of muslims? If the major media showed more stories like "Shadya" or "Offside", how much better off would we be?

Aug. 31 2010 05:30 PM
Lisa Bergman

The term "they should be sensitive to those who lost their lives" and not build the Mosque sounds like some thing from the civil rights era. The same was said of black people. " they should be sensitive of our feelings and not use the same drinking fountain as us or give up their seat for us. It didn't ring true then nor does it now. You can't make someone feel bad for something they have every right to do.

Aug. 27 2010 09:30 PM
Carolyn McDaniel from Oregon

How sad that you who supposedly devote yourselves to “objective” journalism have been so subjective in your appraisal of media usage about the proposed Islamic building near Ground Zero, that you have totally missed the point, at least as badly as Barack Obama, who lectured the nation about freedom of religion, etc. Ground Zero represents something beyond the exact spot. It is not a piece of real estate, the issue is not about religious freedom, and it is not about local zoning or politics. That area is New York City, USA. The United States. The United States was attacked by fanatical followers of Islam who were dedicated to the destruction of our way of life. The people who were killed there were not warriors. They had done nothing to suffer that horrific fate. Nor had the others in New York, who are still suffering the effects of the attack. People do not need this building “in their face.” How dare you attempt to reduce these feelings, which extend across our entire nation from Ground Zero, to matters of semantics??? I have lost much respect for your program after hearing you smirk over comparisons with Burlington Coat Factory or some local deli. By the way, I am not an overheated Republican, but a lifelong Democrat. I am appalled by your lack of sensitivity. And, of your lack of objectivity.

Aug. 26 2010 09:25 PM
Ike B from Groton, CT

Collective guilt much?

I don't get it. Are the people wanting to build the center members of al-Qaeda? Do they actively promote the goals of al-Qaeda? No? They just happen to self-identify as the same religion? Oh, what? Different sects? I suppose that's not important at all.

The only way you can see this thing as an insult to the 9/11-victims or their families is if you've got it set in your head that the actions on that day were representative of the goals of all Muslims. And if that's your position, well, "Anywhere but there" probably isn't your best argument.

And it doesn't matter if 99% of the country is against the thing. Said G.K. Chesterton, "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions." I'm okay with saying that 70% of America is dead wrong, because they are.

Aug. 25 2010 08:45 PM
John from LES

Actually no problem in my mind with the building of this Islamic Community Center (with a prayer room). Work in the area and have been interested in Middle East Culture since I was a kid - love the stories (ali babba and Co.) and architecture. The middle east's DaVinci was Jabir (Gerber) ibn Hayan, a childhood hero of mine (was/is a strange child) - a Jesuit priest taught me about him. Hope they have a historian speak about him.

My one question though is why did the Name change from the Cordoba Initiative to Park51?

Oh and BTW Reggie: Ground Zero was actually the designation for the Trinity Test Site, so actually anytime a nuke's been lit up wheather in war or in a test, it's zero point is known as ground zero (Hiroshima doesn't wholly own the term as much as you would like). Hiroshima wasn't a war crime - there was London, Dresden, Cologne, Tokyo to name a few of too many. They didn't know or could get their minds around the devestating efects of nuke's and barely understood the effects of ionizing radiation. Oh yeah, and there was Japan's Imperial Army (Unit 731) at Pingfang, that was a war crime. I haven't forgotten and I can assure you the Chinese have not forgotten Reggie.

Aug. 25 2010 06:37 PM
Barbara Kaplowitz from Long Island


Aug. 24 2010 08:55 PM
Barbara Kaplowitz from Long Island

what's a value, i just printed a whole paragraph

Aug. 24 2010 08:54 PM
Barbara Kaplowitz from Long Island

If the people that are building the Community Center really want to build bridges then let them start now.They should move their culteral center to show they care about the victims of 9/11, not that they have to move but that they will move. The politicians that are not mediating a compromise should be ashamed of themselves.

Aug. 24 2010 08:53 PM
Paul Bucci

It's too bad that Paul Colford is overly complicated in his comments, but he can't spell.

Aug. 24 2010 07:49 PM
Serge from Brooklyn

A “thought”: Building in the name of Islam on the ashes of victims murdered in the name of Islam is an INSULT.

A “reason”: After 9-11-2001 it is not jus a private land anymore. It is a SYMBOL.
New York is a symbol of America to the rest of the world,
a symbol of freedom.
Ground Zero is a tragic symbol of what evil can do to our freedom in the name of one idea, in the name of one religion.
Islamic building here, to the rest of the world, would be a symbol of DOMINATION of that one religion.

Aug. 24 2010 06:46 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

In '92 or so, training for a community organizing group, a group wanted to site-see in DC. I took them all to the National Islamic Center, not Maya Lin's Wall, forcing them to look forward, not back. I was pleased when Pres. Bush, finally, followed in my footsteps after 9/11.

The Pentagon, now, holds Islamic prayer service. They know to honor the fallen Muslim, as well as the Jew (as Washington did at his first inaugural) and Christian, Native American, Sikh, Hindu, etc. in our pluralist nation. Which is why we must insist that their fallen from 9/11 be honored and mourned at that place with all the others.

More Muslims die of terror than any others and we just lost over 4,000, and many more Muslim partners, to free a Muslim country! (Got that last from another C-SPANer.)

Aug. 24 2010 05:27 PM
Just a Thought

This is a truly teachable moment because this issue gets to the core of freedom of expression and its great value to society. The genius of freedom of expression is that it serves not only the speaker but also those who hear the message and strongly disagree. The speaker in this case are the organizers of the Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero (everybody happy with that careful description?). They can build an Islamic center in different locations in lower Manhattan but they are saying they deliberately choose the one place in the United States where they can legally build an Islamic Cultural Center and would cause the most profound controversy. Their freedom of expression tells us a great deal about these organizers. Alternatively if they said we can build near Ground Zero but out of sensitivity to our fellow Americans we will instead build one mile north of Ground Zero, that would have told us a great deal about them as well. That spirit of American compromise may have created among non-muslims a warm and grateful attitude to the organizers and Muslim-Americans in general and could have led to real cultural bridge building and understanding which the organizers claim is their goal……..but that is not what the Islamic Cultural Center organizers are doing, IS IT? Thanks

Aug. 24 2010 02:34 PM
Tenzing312 from Chicago, IL

Please do a follow-up story this week about Fox News as reported by the Daily Show. Why is a fake news show breaking this story?

Aug. 24 2010 12:21 PM

Apparently Bob thinks two blocks is cab-worthy. Somebody needs a gym membership.

Bob should get on the Jets and Giants. Come on, there in Jersey. Calling them New York isn't even accurate...

This story would have died a natural death if Obama hadn't stuck is self-important nose in it, twice in the space of 24-hours. In typical Obama fashion, he managed to take both sides.

There's no greater torture than listening to Bob's smugness.

Aug. 23 2010 11:36 PM
RL from NYC

Isn't it a principle of journalism that one should not detect the opinion of the commentator (except for editorials)? Both the tone and content suggested there is only one valid position, to support the downtown location of the mosque. Especially as the point was about language, not content, this was an uncharacteristically unbalanced story. To quote the extreme position of N. Gingrich on the negative, the dripping sarcasm of "this great country" took this piece out of the realm of responsible reporting in my view.

Aug. 23 2010 02:34 PM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

I'm just wondering if the news would have called a church built near the site of an abortion clinic where extremists had killed some of the people who had worked there the "Abortion Clinic Church"? If not, then why use that sort of language here for this case?

Aug. 23 2010 06:48 AM
Harry from Brooklyn, NY

I'm grateful for your effort to clear up the semantics and geography of the "Ground Zero Mosque." But why did you not focus on outrages like ABC news, which used a graphic showing a dome and a minaret (features NOT included in the proposed building) next to a silhouette of the twin towers (tough the new building will NOT be visible from the WTC site) over the caption "Ground Zero Mosque." As for the "Ground Zero Burlington Coat Factory," what about the "Ground Zero Starbucks" or the "Ground Zero Strip Club"?

As a professional tour guide, I take people down there all the time. They call it "Ground Zero" regardless of the terms I suggest. So let's live with that, so long as the media offer more precision.


Aug. 23 2010 02:58 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Oh, yes, and those pesky Spanish Jews! Can you say "Inquisition"?

Aug. 23 2010 02:17 AM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Now, to Just A Thought, I grew up weekends at my Aunt Rita's mansion in White Plains where I spent hours in my cousin's bedroom, where he had a pair of true Toledo blades crossed over his bedstead, and where, from age 5 onto perhaps 12, I was forced by social convention to endure her home movies of bullfights she had filmed.

I also know about other parts of Spain and began learning the language at about age 7. Cordoba was a city that served Moorish Spain as a center of culture and advanced learning where the rich cultures of Christianity and Islam found a way to coexist in relative peace, until Isabella's intolerance and her quest for land, power, gold, silver and Empire.

We still admire, and I even adore, the architecture!

Aug. 23 2010 12:33 AM

I appreciate that you took the time to question and investigate the rhetorical dynamics surrounding this issue. I would have liked it, however, if you had pressed somewhat further and addressed the fact that it should not matter whether the proposed building is a mosque or how close to the World Trade Center site it is. It seems to me that part of the effective reframing of the discussion by those opposed to the project is to put proponents in the position of arguing that it's not really a mosque, when in fact that's not really the point. Even if the proposal actually were to build a mosque at the World Trade Center site, protests against it would still be nothing more than manifestations of intolerance and bigotry.

Aug. 22 2010 07:55 PM
J. Jones from Idaho right after the billboard for this show--introducing the topic and rightly identifying the term as inaccurate--the NPR newscast following it opened with a story that referred to, you guessed it, "a mosque at Ground Zero". Y'know, even with the stellar editorial changing of word order, it's still an inaccurate (and misleading) reference.

And while we're discussing the feelings of the 9/11 families: since when do commerce and/or freedom of religion take personal feelings into consideration?

Aug. 22 2010 06:15 PM
Brett Greisen from Astoria NY

How unfortunate. Evidently NPR & WNYC News don't listen to the show. The headlines & opening stories keep either mosque or center and mosque. Why are they afraid to tell of the many similarities between the proposed center & the Tribeca 92nd Street Y center nearby.

To add insult, WNYC chose to identify the socialist group only & not any other group or umbrella group to the pro-Constitutional group, while ID'ing the pro-ban group with the families of 11 Sept 01 victims.

No mention of the AP guideline or any other.

Is the newsroom trying out for Fox/Murdoch???

Aug. 22 2010 05:48 PM
O from NYC

Get someone down there right now. Channel 1 is showing a huge demonstration on both sides. This is getting big. I would like good reporting from the media.

Aug. 22 2010 12:24 PM
Just a Thought

A minority of Americans? I believe the latest poll has nearly 70 percent against the building of a mosque there including liberal Democrats, independents and some muslims.
Besides, since when is it "socially damaging" to hear from a minority? Thanks

Aug. 22 2010 12:06 PM
Kate from NH

I think On the Media should use this as a case study for your program. Why has a local buidling permit become a national story? What's in it for the media to continue to find inflamatory quotes? I understand that the media, in a effort to present balanced stories seek quotes from "both sides." It's worth reflecting upon the social damage that may be going on when media, including NPR continually air quotes from a miniority of Americans who hold bigoted views.

Aug. 22 2010 10:40 AM
Brett Greisen from Astoria NY

1st sentence in 1st post should have ? not [.]. Oops.

Aug. 22 2010 10:38 AM
Andrew from Brooklyn

I find interesting that as soon as I heard about the so called "grand zero mosque", I knew it was intended to be more provocative than factually accurate, yet as the story snowballed, I continued to refer to it as the "ground zero mosque".

Aug. 22 2010 10:35 AM
Brett Greisen from Astoria NY

Jonathan: Why are you against a center that Bin Laden would be happy to destroy. He's your ally.

Also, if you wish a mosque that does not separate men & women, ask your question at the site. Find out how the Imam's Sufi mosque a few blocks from the proposed center currently operates.

If you oppose gender segregation, as I do, then realize that if you impose that condition for a single Sufi congregation you highlight the many Jewish congregations that practice gender segregation, prohibit women rabbis and even ban women from even touching Torah. Would you advocate state interference with them as well?

Aug. 22 2010 10:35 AM
Brett Greisen from Astoria NY


Here is the link to the Lehrer show call in.

Aug. 22 2010 10:24 AM
Jonathan from Salt Lake City, Utah

The stuff that needs to be wiped away are as follows:

1. The political opportunism of the right.
2. The self-loathing politically correctness, and cultural and moral relativism of the left.

The descriptions in the story, like such as comparisons like the "Ground Zero Burlington Coat Factory" are flippant and crass, and also a misrepresentation.

Ground Zero is tied to 9/11 in more than just a minor way.

This is a cultural and religious and political matter. The bottom line issues at play are as follows:

A. Is Saudi Arabia or Iran funding it.
B. Can women without a hijab or nijab or berka freely pray at the proposed mosque.
C. Are men & women separated inside the mosque. Can men and women hold hands during worship service?
D. What do the 9/11 families think? Are most of the opposed?
E. What do New Yorkers think? Are most of them opposed?
F. What do those who were emotionally impacted by 9/11 think? Are most of them opposed?

Not all religious, cultures, and moral systems are equal.

Until true anarchy reigns, the straight nudie bar and gay bar gets to go right next to the pious religious Temple of your choice, then >no< not everything gets to everywhere - until there is a >real< level playing field.

On this issue, I'm with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sam Harris, and Pat Condell. Those familiar with people who're outspoken on the problems with religion will know these names.

It is interesting and sad the liberal left seems so ready and willing to suck up to religions which oppress women and men, religions which have a warped view of science and of healthy human sexuality.

Ground Zero is a special place, and a mega mosque maybe shouldn't be nearby - unless it's a mosque where most women who show up can easily show up unveiled and so on, and if men & women & sit together, and hold hands, and if it's a mosque where Salman Rushdie's books are in the library, and where lampooning of the prophet and of Allah is welcomed - & also in the library of such a center.


Aug. 22 2010 12:09 AM
Tracy Decann from Oswego NY Home of WRVO

The mosque has every right to be there, its aslo a community center and it is two blocks from ground zero where the victims of 9/11 died. Many were muslims who were in the buildings, on the ground, on the planes and at the pentagon or were resque personnel.

Aug. 21 2010 03:19 PM
Robert Harvey from Stony Brook, NY

I commend Reggie for reminding us all of the first semantic slippage in all of this: from Hiroshima to New York City. Not only was the term "ground zero" coined to designate the epicenter of the bomb that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in a matter of seconds, to use it for the place where criminals (not an enemy army) killed 3,000 Americans is an admission that we too committed a terrible act on the Japanese people 65 years ago this month.

Aug. 21 2010 02:25 PM

To Just a thought:

"The victims of 9/11 were of all religions, races and nationalities and were targeted collectively and indiscriminately so to identify them by individual faiths is irrelevant since that made no difference to the attackers."

That may not be true. Bin laden could have aimed his makeshift missles almost anywhere in the US and been less likely to kill Muslims. He must have known that. American Muslims are here because they don't want to live in a theocracy, which makes them anathema to the theocratic Muslims of Al Queda. It's like the Christians of the KKK vs. Martin Luther King.

Aug. 21 2010 12:26 PM
Reggie from New York City

I don't know why the term Ground Zero, which your show said will always stick with the World Trade Center, is so readily accepted. I find it offensive to the Japanes. Ground Zero was originally a reference to Hiroshima, where we committed a war crime by killing a hundred thousand innocent Japanese citizens. Our loss of 2000 lives doesn't compare to that event. Do we really need to remind the world of what we did to test out out atomic weapons?

Aug. 21 2010 11:51 AM
Not a Chance

The mosque brew-haha is nothing more than Republicans knowing what will rile up simpleton conservatives in an election year.

As ever, Republican politicians revel in their skill at manipulating their simple-minded base, laughing all the way to the polls and ultimately to their bank accounts, once they again get their hands on the nation’s purse strings following the November elections.

The mosque is absolutely, completely benign, short of being an excuse for Republicans to win over more of the ignorant and easily startled.

Aug. 21 2010 10:20 AM
Just a Thought

The victims of 9/11 were of all religions, races and nationalities and were targeted collectively and indiscriminately so to identify them by individual faiths is irrelevant since that made no difference to the attackers.
The attackers were deliberately all of one religion and that is relevant.
Also this issue is no more a local issue than 9/11 itself was.
An "Islamic cultural center" which is "near" Ground Zero will be watched very closely by the entire world who will "incorrectly" perceive a grand mosque at Ground Zero and they will not all arrive at the same opinion about the strength and resolve of our nation. We may see it as strength but others will see it as weakness. We may see it as fancy bricks but others will see it as a flag of victory and will not be impressed by OTM's measuring of the distance and size of the prayer rug. That is why this has become such a vexing issue. Like it or not, people are motivated by symbols and perceptions and their cultural point of view. Thanks

Aug. 21 2010 09:49 AM
Brett Greisen from Astoria NY

TO: David -

What about the feelings of the survivors of Moslem victims of 11 Sept 01?

What about the survivors of the Moslem cops, firemen, EMTS who responded & died?

What about the surviving families of Moslem volunteer responders who responded with food, water, equipment, etc. to assist those working on the pile and who continue to die along with the pile workers/volunteers?

The Brian Lehrer Show had a call in on FRI 20 Aug that was ONLY for those who live in the neighborhood. Their online comments & the show podcast are available @ The center's website is

Am I alone in noting that those making the loudest noise are often those living the farthest away from the WTC site and the DC/NorthVA & PA sites?

Aug. 21 2010 07:33 AM
paul Scanlon from New York City

Memo to On the Media: It would not be a "mosque," but a community center with a gym, a swimming pool and so forth, and a prayer room.

Aug. 21 2010 07:19 AM

YIKES! The dreaded DOUBLE POST! Sorry.

Aug. 21 2010 12:54 AM


"Considering all the political bias and lazy semantics in the media today, the public is not particularly ill served when a building that was close enough to have landing gear fall through the roof is placed at Ground Zero and a 13 story Islamic community center welcoming up to 2,000 people that will have a (low key?) mosque over looking the "real" Ground Zero is called a mosque."

I'd like to make a few points

1. Believe it or not, that's a sentence!

2. It's really a perfect example of something I've maintained again and again. Every political liar, right or left, will use "bias " to justify his lies. It's not a Mosque, It's not on ground zero, but BECAUSE OF MEDIA BIAS, it's really in everybody's best that we say something that isn't true.

3. You know, every year I get my prostate checked at a hospital that contains a chapel. In spite of that fact, I would describe the experience as fairly secular.

Aug. 21 2010 12:29 AM


"Considering all the political bias and lazy semantics in the media today, the public is not particularly ill served when a building that was close enough to have landing gear fall through the roof is placed at Ground Zero and a 13 story Islamic community center welcoming up to 2,000 people that will have a (low key?) mosque over looking the "real" Ground Zero is called a mosque."

I'd like to make a few points

1. Believe it or not, that's a sentence!

2. It's really a perfect example of something I've maintained again and again. Every political liar, right or left, will use "bias " to justify his lies. It's not a Mosque, It's not on ground zero, but BECAUSE OF MEDIA BIAS, it's really in everybody's best that we say something that isn't true.

3. You know, every year I get my prostate checked at a hospital that contains a chapel. In spite of that fact, I would describe the experience as fairly secular.

Aug. 21 2010 12:29 AM
Just a Thought

Excellent points David. The snide and snarky tone of the piece was additionally off putting.
Considering all the political bias and lazy semantics in the media today, the public is not particularly ill served when a building that was close enough to have landing gear fall through the roof is placed at Ground Zero and a 13 story Islamic community center welcoming up to 2,000 people that will have a (low key?) mosque over looking the "real" Ground Zero is called a mosque. Perhaps if the landing gear of Flight 175 did not crash though the building's roof on 9/11 this would all be a moot point and we would indeed have a "Ground Zero Burlington Coat Factory" (cue weird laughter) as was pointed out for comic relief in the segment. Nevertheless, I will concede the point. May we call it Cordoba House? Any fact checking purists want to research and dissect the semantics, history and "ideological tilt" of that name? Thanks

Aug. 20 2010 06:30 PM
David from Lawrenceville, NJ

Fourth, the fact that there are already storefront mosques in the area that no one ever previously complained about is actually evidence that no one is ginning up the story, but rather "Why here?" for this particular "statement."

Finally, it was also interesting that you accepted the characterization of the Imam and his backers that this facility is an "explicit symbol of Muslim anti-extremism." There is starting to be some good reporting on the Imam's comments (see his 60 Minutes interview) where he says that "in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the U.S.A." No matter how you slice it – and yes there are those who "say" he is a "moderate" Imam – it doesn't sound moderate, does it? Or that he cannot condemn Hamas. If the founders of the project are as serious about interfaith bridge-building as they say, they’ll be delighted to find a location that doesn't stoke a religiously charged debate, even though they have a perfect, constitutional right to build it there.

Aug. 20 2010 05:26 PM
David from Lawrenceville, NJ

It was interesting to me that this story, when not focused on the media, was largely centered on how the usual suspects have used language to frame the debate.

What of was stunning by its absence are the way the victims feel about it. Mr. Gingrich is right, in that the reason the Carmelite convent that was to be established outside Auschwitz in the 1980s was never built not because these Catholics were an integral part of Adolf Hitler’s death machine – they weren't. They had a legal right. But the victims – the survivors of the Holocaust and Jewish groups found the Catholic center offensive.

Second, this story assumed that people are saying that this Muslim group doesn't have a constitutional right to build the mosque there. I don't hear anyone saying that. They're talking about an ethical right. I think your story is reframing the debate. Surely, you don’t think that Howard Dean and Harry Reid are against the mosque because they don't think there is a legal right to have it there. It’s an issue of taking the developers on their word that the center is about interfaith bridge-building, and that this isn't the way to do it, right?

Third, as for actual proximity, and having lived in New York City for 15 years, things were close when they were "around the corner." All I can say is, walk down Park Place over to West Broadway (you can do this in under 120 seconds), and look left around the corner. What do you see? Bingo. And I think when aircraft landing gear from the attacking planes land on your roof… is that not close enough?

Aug. 20 2010 05:26 PM
Paul Colford from NYC

It's unfortunate that your opening segment with Michael Calderone of Yahoo! News was taped so early in the week that it's immediately outdated on the matter of how the AP references the planned NYC mosque in headlines.

This AP staff memo -- issued Thursday, Aug. 19, and sent to the "On the Media" producer who had phoned the AP two days earlier -- offers guidance on covering the mosque story:

Mr. Calderone's report on the memo -- not linked in the teaser atop your homepage, as it should be -- is here:

Paul Colford
Director of Media Relations
The Associated Press

Aug. 20 2010 04:13 PM

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