Rick Clifton Moore. Journal of Media & Religion. Volume 17, Issue 3/4. July-December 2018.
In 2017 Nike, Inc. announced the launch of a new product, a pro hijab. Journalistic coverage of this event allows for analysis of how news reporters balance their view of religion with predispositions to cover other important elements, such as women in sport, and the growth of corporate power. Through a critical discourse analysis, the researcher discovered reporters did not manifest strong Islamophobia or patriarchy in their coverage and that they rarely questioned Nike’s corporate power.
In recent years, Islam, broadly defined, has been in the news. As Powell describes, it gained interest “because of connections to oil, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and terrorism” (p. 92). With journalistic coverage has come scholarly interrogation of that coverage. Ahmed and Mathes collected 345 specific studies of media representation of the Muslim faith since 2000. Many of those studies have found that media depictions of Islam include stereotypes and even veer into what many researchers have labeled “Islamophobia.”
News often happens, however, when religion intersects with other aspects of daily life. Ahmed and Matthes suggest much of the coverage of Islam, for example, relates to migration, terrorism, and war. It is quite possible these interesting connections, and their own patterns of coverage, do not receive the attention they deserve. Along those lines, one might ask, how does coverage of Islam overlap with general patterns of coverage of the other intervening dimensions of life, such as migration? How does it fit with broader discussion of terrorism? Is war discussion in relation to Islam similar or different from war coverage in general? Are journalists typically predisposed to cover these general topics in a particular way, and how do their natural tendencies in that area coincide with, or conflict with, their tendencies to want to portray Muslim belief according to preconceived notions, or even stereotypes?
In the study that follows I attempt to address some of these issues by choosing a specific instance of Islam in the news that entails several other news patterns well-known to media scholars. When Nike, Inc., the world’s largest sportswear manufacturer, decided to market a new “made-for-athletes” hijab, the story brought several areas of media research interest together. Certainly news coverage of this event would fit into the broader category of journalism about Islam. In addition, though, it fits neatly into another category, the category of portrayal of women in sport (which typically veers into discussion of terms such as the “patriarchal” nature of messages) as well the growing presence and power of corporations in our daily lives (which typically veers into discussion of terms such as “corporate hegemony” in the media). In sum, journalists, who are typically thought to frame Islam in ways that are stereotypical, or even Islamophobic, often find their discussion of Islam intertwined with other subject matter for which scholars presume journalists also have patterns of predictable coverage.
Given this, the current research delves into the release of the Nike Pro Hijab and how mainstream U.S. media reacted to the product’s rollout. Did journalists’ reporting of this event show clear Islamophobia? Did reporters, who are presumed to respond to women’s sports news in predictable ways, exemplify such coverage here? Finally, what of the fact that all of this “news” is really initiated by one of the world’s largest corporations?
As noted above, the news story here is certainly a news story on Islam. It is also, though, a news story about women’s progress in sports, and the power of an international corporation to lead change in how we view religion and women’s sports. Media scholars have scrutinized news coverage of Islam for many years. The preponderance of those studies indicates predictable patterns in how the press report about the religion. In addition, though, the argument here is that the research record would also lead to presumptions that the women’s sport and corporate dimensions of the story are likely to be covered in predictable ways.
In regard to Islam, the simple starting point in describing what research tells us about news coverage is that it is negative and stereotypical. Ahmed and Matthes place this portrayal of Muslims in the broader framework of media portrayal of minorities and in the preface to their meta-analysis of Islamic imagery claim that “scholars in the last two decades have continued to obtain similar findings of stereotypical representation of minorities in the media” (p. 221). Baker, Gabrielatos, and McEnery discuss how British newspapers covered Islam during 1998-2009. Their focus was less on outright hostility in the press and more on subtle elements of discrimination, such as how word choices in stories painted pictures of Muslims as being easily offended and essentially separated from the Western communities in which they are imbedded. Kristina McQueeney (p. 297) summarizes the thrust of much of this research, suggesting media imagery plays a key role in Islamophobia, consistently portraying Muslims as “other,” and that these images “saturate the corporate-controlled mass media.” Saeed echoes this sentiment, pointing out that Muslims face two problems found in relation to a number of other minority groups. To a large extent, they are ignored by the media. Then, according to Saeed, when they are not ignored they are “construed in negative discourses” (p. 2).
Of course, the news story to be examined here deals specifically with Muslim females, and there is research of interest in this area. Haque suggests Western media tend to portray Islamic women as victims. They are problematic, in the common narrative of inclusive tolerance. Explaining the framing of Aqsa Parvez’s death in Canada, Haque, p. 97) claims the media message was that the young Muslim could not integrate well into Canada because of the “barbaric cultural practices of her religious culture.” Zine, p. 240) sees the religious veil as best understood within the context of Said’s “representations that cast colonial Muslim women as backward, oppressed victims of misogynist societies.” At the same time, she sees Muslim women as victims of a “dual oppression” (p. 239), given they experience racism and Islamophobia from Western outsiders and sexism from Islamic insiders. Kumar suggests a key myth about Islam in the West is that it is somehow uniquely sexist. His point of view is that all religions are sexist to an extent, yet Islam is somehow seen by Western media as essentially and exclusively so.
Oddly, broader research about sport would suggest women in general are not treated fairly by the media, regardless of their religion. Women’s sports activities have been given much less treatment historically than men’s sports across all media. Though one might think the diversity of outlets created via the Internet would alter the world of mediated sport and make it less patriarchal, Fink, p. 335) claims the positive coverage of women’s sports is limited and still marginalized on niche sites. She cites Clavio and Eagleman, for example, who say a very small percentage (7.1%) of images in sports blogs tend to be of female participants. This is often framed within the concept of patriarchy, or hegemonic masculinity. The latter is interrogated thoroughly by Connell and Messerschmidt, who suggest it “ideologically legitimates the global subordination of women to men” (p. 832). Fink claims it is a combination of “hegemonic masculinity,” “sexism,” and “homophobia” that work to convince media practitioners that the best way to market women’s sports it to show something other than women’s athleticism. Fink does suggest there are indications of change in how women are portrayed in sports media but claims the indications are exceptions rather than rules. Similarly, Fink and Kensicki have observed that while female athletes get stronger, more talented, and faster than ever, they still receive poor treatment by the media, often portrayed as “trivialized sex symbols” (p. 330). Frisby’s recent work in analyzing sports magazine covers reinforces these findings, suggesting that in recent years things have not changed much. For example, she says women are portrayed much less frequently than men and (adding insult to injury) are also much more likely to be shown in provocative dress than men. Similarly, Martin, Lee, McNary, and Totani claim recent coverage of men and women in tennis magazines has not improved the lot of the second category significantly. Women receive less coverage and are more likely to be portrayed in poses unrelated to their sport than men.
All this happens in the context of a media system that is commercial and operated, for the most part, by large corporations. For some scholars of media, this is the most significant constraining factor in what we read, see, and hear. As Foster and McChesney state, the groundwork for this system of communication was laid many years ago. A “triumph of commercialism” (p. 10) developed in the United States in the 1950s as the government handed over the control of the airwaves of radio and television to major corporations. The trend has continued, with the spread of the Internet and data mining. Commercialism is not exclusively the problem; more specifically, the increasing problem is corporate commercialism. Robert McChesney explains “the clear trajectory of our media and communication tends toward ever-greater corporate concentration, media conglomeration, and hypercommercialism” (p. 77). What this scenario creates is a pattern of communication permitting “a few multinational oligopolies to determine who and what is represented and how” (Kellner & Share, p. 377). Of course, one product of this consolidation, theorists argue, is that corporate media are beholden to a corporate worldview. As McChesney explains, “…the media conglomerates are willing to censor and distort journalism to suit their corporate interests” (p. 25). “Mainstream corporate media tended to promote the interests of the corporations that own them, which tend to be promarket and anti-regulation and have largely advanced the interests of corporate institutions and conservative politics” (Kellner, p. 58).
Admittedly, scholars such as Kellner sometimes confess the media are complex and their messages are manifold. Specifically, media messages represent “contested terrain,” and even “radical or oppositional views” (p. 8) are sometimes expressed in mainstream media. Regardless, the cultural studies approach is generally said to view society as a “hierarchical and antagonistic set of social relations characterized by the oppression of subordinate class, gender, race, ethnic and national strata” (p. 9).
Some of this may be news to journalists, who tend to think of themselves as autonomous free agents and have significant distrust of the commercial dimensions of their trade, especially management and advertising (McManus). Traditional newspapers in the United States typically had separate advertising and news divisions, the latter structured around reporters and editors who saw themselves as distinct from the profit-driven elements of their medium (Barnouw). Even as newspapers and broadcast news organizations have become more corporate, much of that model remains intact (Gans). Historically, journalists, as part of larger profit-driven media enterprises, tend to see themselves as distinctive from the business dimensions of them, typically, for example, working in spaces physically detached from the advertising division (DeLorme & Fedler). Given all of this, professionally-minded journalists pursue values that frame their work within public service, even as they must recognize the pressure that advertising places on their ability to fulfill that service. They often feel newspapers should sacrifice profits for doing what is right and that true journalism sometimes becomes tainted by the pressures imposed on it via its commercial elements (DeLorme & Fedler, p. 30).
All of the above suggests scholars have a broad understanding of how journalists relate to general news categories. That understanding can be summarized with three points. 1) When presented with a story about Islam, journalists tend to portray the religion negatively and by use of a large number of stereotypes. 2) When presented with a story about women in sport, journalists tend to portray female athletes’ performances negatively and in ways that suggest a pale comparison to men in sport. 3) When presented with news related to corporations and their business activities, journalists tend to portray them positively. The question to be addressed here is how these various factors interact when embedded within a single, unifying news event. Nike, one of the most powerful corporations in the United States, trumpeted the release of a new product that would appear to give positive attention to Islam and to women’s athletics. To use a sport metaphor, how would journalists field a ball that approached them if it was fast, appeared to have some spin to it, and was approaching over bumpy terrain? The triple threat of Islam, women’s athletics, and a powerful corporate entity in a news story might seem a similar challenge.
Nike’s announcement of its new Pro Hijab product was made in March 2017, and the product was released to stores in December of that year. To analyze how mainstream journalists covered the announcement and release, I searched for stories from U.S. newspapers, magazines, and news Web sites between March 1, 2017 and December 31, 2017. I began my gathering of materials by searching via LexisNexis, EbscoHost, and Proquest, all databases that allow for powerful keyword searches. In addition, I searched online at the Web sites of the 20 largest U.S. newspapers by circulation, 20 largest U.S. magazines by circulation, and 20 most visited U.S. Web sites. With these procedures, I encountered 27 rich and detailed pieces for which the release of the Nike Pro Hijab was the main focus of the story.
The method for analyzing these stories was a form of critical discourse analysis (CDA), a method widely used to study a variety of media messages. Some of the most thorough discussion of CDA as a method has been provided by van Dijk, who has said of it that it aims “to analyze, and thus to contribute to the understanding and the solution of serious social problems, especially those that are caused or exacerbated by public text and talk” (p. 63). Elaborating, he suggests it is particularly useful for understanding “various forms of social power abuse (domination) and their resulting social inequality” (p. 63).
To best grasp how social power is manifested in society, researchers should carefully examine groups of text and attempt to discern what ideas are presented in a way that enhances their value. Researchers can often determine this by looking for repetition of some ideas that are demonstrated to be worthy of adherence. In addition, however, researchers can understand a lot by looking for ideas that are ignored. Specifically, for this study, I engage in what Bednarek and Caple describe as “close analysis of text” allowing us to “find out what values are emphasized (foregrounded), rare or absent (backgrounded)” (p. 140). Munro describes the process nicely, stating:
“A key idea is that the use of language is an agentive process. In creating texts, the writer makes choices that are revealing of their ideological position or the position they wish the reader to co-construct. Choices are made as to which voices are foregrounded and which not: the way that language is used reveals norms and value judgements…” (p. 6)
More specifically, I analyzed the stories to determine specific elements of story structure and vocabulary by reading and rereading the text looking for emergent themes. Following the lead of McGannon, Berry, Rodgers, and Spence, I proceeded by highlighting “specific words and terms within passages and/or entire passages of text, and attaching these to a broader category based on the socio-cultural understandings associated with that category.”
One point that precipitated this study is that Islam would be presumed to be a key element in the story at hand. A number of reporters did make clear references to the Muslim faith, and the tone with which they did so varied significantly.
To start, though, I should note that references to Islam were not prevalent in comparison to some other themes reporters tended to develop. On those occasions where Islam was brought to the forefront, references to the religion that seemed negative were rare or even absent. NBC News, for example, did allude to the fact that some people criticized Nike for its decision to market a Muslim-related product. The television news program made reference to the hashtag #boycottNike and how a number of people tweeting about the new hijab claimed it supported “the oppression of women” (Spector). CBS News briefly noted that Nike’s Twitter communication about the clothing did receive some criticism for “appearing to bow to a religion that oppresses women” (Ivanova). Bleacher Report was slightly less assertive, mentioning that “Muslim veiling practices are still controversial” (Weiner). Forbes magazine made a brief comment on Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi and how she faced criticism for wearing a “revealing leotard” in the Southeast Asian Games. The magazine pointed out that Malaysia has a “predominantly Muslim population” and that criticism came “mostly from men.”
Such references to Islamic sexism and potential anti-Islamic sentiment were nearly nonexistent. Many other stories made reference to this event having a strong religious dimension but framed the religious dimension within a broader rubric, that of inclusivity. The idea of having Muslim athletes who are clearly visible as Muslims was presented as being a net positive. A story in The Huffington Post, for example, claimed the new product “could increase the profile of active wear options for female athletes of all faiths (Wamshel). Numerous other reporters made it apparent this was not just a story about “faiths” in a generic sense but also about the inclusion of Islam specifically. USA Today reported this was simply “the latest move to fold the Muslim clothing industry into the mainstream” (Khan). A reporter for the Los Angeles Times quoted an athlete who seemed to indicate this helped overcome the invisibility of Islam in the media. She said, “for a brand like Nike to come out and say that these people exist and are inclusive of hijabis is a big deal” (Schilken). Natalie Weiner, writing for The Bleacher Report, quoted a source who claimed Nike was allowing women to overcome cultural obstacles. She said this was important “because through sports, Muslim women can bring down barriers they face – such as hijab bans – and be represented in the wider community” (Weiner). The Washington Post also played up the “inclusion” theme, quoting from an Instagram post by weightlifter Al Haddad, who wrote, “they know that we are here to stay and decided to join the party” (Boren & Payne).
For most of these reporters, “inclusivity” meant recognizing all of Islam, even elements of it, apparently, that might be considered “exclusive.” Few stories addressed the fact, for example, that some who have called for banning hijabs have done so because they think gender-based clothing requirements are illiberal. In fact, most stories studied here suggested Nike’s celebration of Islam was all about liberation. Weiner quoted another source who suggested women athletes wearing hijabs was ultimately about them serving as “role models” because “Muslim women in sports still face barriers.”
Perhaps some of the “liberation” framing of the story came from many writers also framing this as a simple matter of “choice.” Muslim women were choosing to wear the hijab and choosing to be active in sport. Forbes magazine interviewed Malaysian tri-athlete Hafiza Othman, who the magazine says decided to don a hijab after getting married. Thus, it makes sense that she saw Nike’s product as allowing women to not feel “hindered by their choice of dress (Ramoran-Malasig, emphasis author’s). The journalist admitted to using a bad pun when she ended the story by saying the “choice to wear the hijab” would rest on each person’s shoulders. Along these lines, eight different stories made reference to a video Nike had released, a commercial showing young women choosing to engage in sport. The video ended with the line, “What will they say about you.” Bleacher Report, Forbes, The Huffington Post, and NBC News all used the term “choice” in their stories. Forbes, The Huffington Post, and NBC News (in a second story on the topic) used the term “option.”
“Choice” and “options” are terms that flow into another theme presented by the articles studied here. If “choice” and “options” are good, the most important feature of the scenario being described is that, at bedrock, it is really about women and sports. After all, for years women did not have the choice/option to engage in athletic activity. So an article of clothing that allows Muslim women to compete is merely one step in the direction of full participation. Both The Los Angeles Times and USA Today quoted from a Nike press release that said the impetus for the Pro Hijab goes back much further than its own design, production and distribution. According to the statement from the sportswear manufacturer, this is part of “an ongoing cultural shift that has seen more women than ever embracing sport” (Khan; Schilken,). In one of its stories, NBC News used a quote provided by another smaller sportswear company that sums this up quite nicely.
We know that participation in sports help develop important interpersonal, teamwork, and leadership skills that set girls up for success – so we are happy to hear that Nike is planning to launch sports hijabs. (Constante)
The Chicago Tribune developed its story along similar lines, quoting a Muslim athlete who said when growing up she “never had these women to look up to” (Boren & Payne). The consistent message in these stories was that young women in the future will have more role models if Muslims are allowed to perform without denying an element of their faith. Stories (Ketchum; Schilken) alluded to fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab. The Star Tribune (Ketchum) discussed the fact that many Muslim women had been banned from various sporting competitions because of their desire to wear a covering. In all of this, the focus was on women being able to perform — and perform to the best of their abilities. Indeed, one attributed source was clearly hoping the discussion of hijabs would quickly pass so that people would stop paying attention to a small piece of fabric and begin looking at the performance of female athletes. Mara Gubuan, founder of a group that promotes athletics for Muslim women, summed this up by saying she was somewhat disturbed by the hijab discussion because she believed “there was too much of a focus on [Ibtihaj’s] hijab, and not on her athleticism” (Weiner).
Admittedly, though, this whole event was intended to focus attention on the product of a company that makes huge profit by selling global sportswear. Given that, Nike itself would presumably be the focus of some of the attention. The stories studied here suggested as much.
A few stories made reference to Nike’s power in ways that could be taken to be negative. In NBC’s two stories, the second discussed the “backlash” against Nike. They suggest the athletic clothing giant could be seen as taking advantage of little companies (Spector). After all, smaller enterprises had been marketing hijabs for some time. The Bleacher Report story used an attributed quote in which a source suggested Nike was trying to “cash in.” Forbes used an almost identical term, one that most all would agree is tinged with negativity.
Some sources and some reporters took a more pragmatic approach to this, seeing Nike’s decision to jump into the Muslim market as “business as usual,” so to speak. The New York Post suggested this was all about demographics, with more than 600,000 Muslim women under the age of 20 living in the United States (O’Neill). Broadening this to world statistics, another attributed source simply noted that one in four people in the world today is Muslim (Spector). Of course, a big question is whether this quarter of the population has disposable income. NBC News seemed to indicate they do, using a Thomson Reuters report projecting Muslims will spend more than $300 billion on clothing by 2020 (Constante).
Whether this was merely a business decision or not, some of the reporting about it was quite positive toward Nike. The Los Angeles Times quoted one source who said “for a brand like Nike to come out and say that these people exist and are inclusive of hijabis is a big deal” (Schilken) The Huffington Post was favorable toward the company, saying it was the “first large-scale global corporation to prioritize the needs of Muslim athletes” (Vagianos). The article also shared a tweet from Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, who said, “what Nike has done for Muslim athletes is a dream that we never thought would happen.” CNN also provided an effusive quotation from Lari, saying, “I was thrilled and a bit emotional to see Nike prototyping a hijab” (Alkhalisi). Forbes Magazine quoted another athlete, Malaysian triathlete Hafiza Othman, who said she was “happy with the initiatives taken by Nike” (Ramoran-Malasig). The Huffington Post provided tweets from a number of athletes who said they were “stoked” or “pumped,” or they “audibly gasped when Nike announced its product” (Wamshel). Dana Morales Gomez, writing for PBS, quoted basketball player and runner Rowai Abdelaziz, who said it is “definitely exciting to see such a huge corporation like Nike cater to the Muslim community” (Morales Gomez). Ayisha Khan, writing in USA Today, used Egyptian Runner Manal Rostom to praise the company. She was quoted as saying “it means the world to have the leading sport brand in the world come up with a product like this.” Rostom continued, “it’s not just speaking to athletes, but speaking to the whole word that Nike supports all athletes to literally go out there and Just Do It.” Reporters and their sources consistently acknowledged Nike was the 800-pound gorilla that could sit anywhere it wanted, but most everybody seemed okay with that, provided the gorilla was accomplishing something they appear to have supported.
Perhaps the best summary of all that was presented above is provided in a quotation from a story in The Washington Post. The writers for that prestigious newspaper wrote:
The commercial and hijab launch are a timely combination of empowerment and merchandising as more Muslim women than ever pursue athletics. In addition, Nike wields a great deal of influence in sports, which is important at a time when not all sports allow women to compete in hijabs. (Boren & Payne)
In general, articles from mainstream newspapers, magazines, television networks, and Web sources suggest Islam is just one more choice; that women should be encouraged in athletics, however possible; and if Nike steps forward to do the encouraging, all the better, given their worldwide commercial clout.
This stands in contrast to some earlier research but supports other studies. It questions earlier research that media representations of the Muslim faith tend to be negative, even Islamophobic. It questions earlier research that women’s sport is denigrated by the mainstream press. It aligns quite well with a track record of studies showing that media tend to be favorable toward the corporate world.
In regard to the Muslim faith, its image in the stories studied here was very muted. Muslim women were shown to be strong and liberated and thought of as role models. Contrary to Ahmed and Matthes, one would be hard pressed to claim the images here were stereotypical. Unlike in the media content Baker et al. studied, Muslims here were not presented to be overly sensitive. Neither were they portrayed to be radically different from others in their communities. There were occasional references to concerns by some Americans that Islam was oppressive and (on that basis) that Nike should not make a product to serve Muslims. But these were rare, and the answer seemed to be that concerns expressed about Islam related only the old Islam, not the new sporty Islam that Nike is selling. What Nike is selling is an Islam bereft of any theological convictions. In the world of Nike’s advertising, the only way to tell a Muslim from someone who is not a Muslim is that she might wear a hijab. Of course, such is her choice. Thus, despite claims by McQueeney that the media play a key part in fanning the flames of Islamophobia, messages here seemed to suggest Muslims simply want to play sport and compete. Interestingly, the word “Islamophobia” was used only once in all of the articles studied here, and it was used by a person favorable toward Nike’s new product — a representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations who felt Nike’s efforts would “normalize” Islam and in doing so “weaken the rhetoric of fear and bigotry advanced by the powerful Islamophobia industry” (Spector).
As noted in the analysis, one overriding theme of the ads was inclusion. Another was choice. The message was clear that anyone should be included, as long as they allow others to make whatever choice they want. Indeed, the flip side of these positive images of Islam in stories studied here was the online video that eight of the news stories made reference to. The video, released shortly before the Hijab launch, is basically a series of vignettes set in the Arabic world. Young women are seen making choices to practice their sports under the watchful (sometimes curious, sometimes judgmental) eyes of older community members. The question the video raises, in Arabic, is “what will they say about you?” By the end of the video, no more old people are seen. The recurring images are of young people doing what they want in sport, mostly wearing Nike clothing, of course. The ad begins with a rather enigmatic moment where a young woman leaves her home and begins to veil her face. The imagery shows her change her mind and leave her visage unveiled. The ad ends with a Nike logo and trademarked slogan, “Just do it.”
In both that ad and in all of the news stories about Nike’s introduction of the Pro Hijab, imagery of women in sport was very strong and very positive. Again, the message seemed to be one of old and new. The old was a world where women were not allowed to compete; the new is a world where they are. In regard to Kumar’s findings that Islam is presented in the media as being uniquely oppressive toward women, here the mainstream media seemed to indicate that even the United States must grapple with a sexist past where “barriers” prevented women from fully competing.
How these news stories discussed women and women’s sport was also strikingly different from what scholars say is the norm. Whereas Fink and Kensicki claim female athletes receive little coverage, here they were given tremendous attention with nary a male athlete in sight, for obvious reason. Less obviously, the images here contradicted Fink and Kensicki’s claim that women athletes are typically shown as “trivialized sex symbols” (p. 330) when they do actually appear. In the news stories regarding the Nike Pro Hijab, the attention was on females’ physical prowess, not their beauty or sex appeal. Thus, in the context of these stories, Connell and Messerschmidt’s claim typical media messages are about the subordination of women to men makes no sense. The recurring theme was breaking down barriers to women being able to play whatever sport they wish, regardless of what men think. Following suit, Fink’s predictive abilities are off, given her notion that hegemonic masculinity and homophobia are so strong that media practitioners are driven to avoid showing female athleticism when marketing sport. In this instance, Nike reveled in female athleticism, and journalists who wrote about Nike’s newest venture did likewise.
All of this merely suggests, of course, that corporations have tremendous power. But the image that is developing in this study does not neatly align with much of the research by scholars such as Kellner and McChesney in regard to the end product of that power. Much of the scholarship presented in the literature reviewed above indicates that corporations control the media, and that what results from this control is significantly conservative. In the case of Nike’s foray into Muslim sportswear and mainstream media’s coverage of it, media deference to a major corporation was evident, but one would be hard pressed to call the end result of that deference “conservative.” Yes, as Foster and McChesney suggest, the scenario in question does appear to demonstrate a triumph of commercialism. Moreover, as McChesney predicts, this commercialism tends to favor corporate conglomerates such as Nike, seen here to be stepping into a market that smaller companies had been slowly developing for some time.
Where the story studied here does not line up well with much of the critical scholarship in media is that the message Nike shared – and mainstream media echoed – was a message that had little to do with what Kellner calls “conservative politics” (p. 58). Generally, the “conservative” wing of American politics has tended to take a cautious view toward Islam, adhering to the traditional notion that the Muslim faith presents a “clash of civilizations” with the traditions of the West (Tamney, p. 600). Given that, claiming this coverage to be politically conservative is a stretch, at best. More importantly, for our purposes, if one thinks of conservative views within Islam, the stories equally missed the mark. The recurring message of the texts studied here was that more freedom from constraint is a good thing. Such a message contrasts starkly with a key theme of Islam, namely “submission.” As Muslim theology and the very etymology of the word “Islam” indicate, submission is at the heart of the faith (Carolan et al; Hodge). A good Muslim does as God, and her community ask her to do. In significant parts of the Muslim world, for much of the history of Islam, that has meant covering her head, even if the practice is increasingly debated within the faith today (Akou).
To be fair, as I mentioned in the literature review, scholars such as Kellner often admit that media messages are complex, and the “contested terrain” (p. 8) of mainstream media allows alternative views to often reach the public. Similarly, Saeed) points out that “structures of access to the media, through which primary definitions emerge, shift over time as the political environment changes” (p. 8). All of this reflects processes that are complex, with “social negotiation between competing social actors” sometimes becoming volatile.
Given these factors, there is a need for additional scholarship. The case at hand clearly demonstrates there are instances in which mainstream media rely very little on stereotypes to portray Islam and present the faith in a way nobody would call Islamophobic. In their quest to prove the mainstream media need reform, are scholars missing other instances like this? Along the same lines, the case at hand clearly showed mainstream media portraying women’s sport as worthy of time and attention. What structural factors created such messages? Or if journalists do have a high level of autonomy, what choices did they make that lead them to report things in this way, a fashion that seems to contradict claims of a large body of media research? To what extent does corporate hegemony really mean conservative messaging? Here, some of the nation’s most powerful corporate media wrote about a major U.S. commercial enterprise in a way that was pro-commercial but not at all “conservative.” Are there other instances in which journalists can take the side of corporate profit and do so in a way that contests the cultural status quo? Finally, in regard to religion, to what extent is positive coverage of Islam, as seen here, really beneficial to any faith? The stories studied contained ample evidence that large numbers of Muslims were elated to see Nike respect their religion. In addition, the analysis above shows that Nike’s respect bubbled over into journalistic respect. At the same time, in this whole process, might Nike’s marketers and mainstream reporters have engaged in what religion scholar Mark Silk once described as rubbing away “the sharp edges of religious distinctiveness” (p. 139)? That is, might the “palatable” Islam of Nike be so watered-down that it cannot be distinguished from any other world view that Nike wishes to co-opt?
These questions seem vital in regards to news coverage of Islam. As Ogan, Willnat, Pennington, and Bashir point out, the Muslim population in the United States is likely to grow. As the population grows, “issues of identity and belonging only become more salient” (p. 29). Many of the questions above have to do with all religious beliefs and the extent to which corporations and corporate media respect and welcome them. Given this, there is much still to learn in this complicated world where religion intersects with so many facets of our lives.