The pictures stream into Americans' living rooms around the clock: Islamic terrorist Osama bin Laden's bearded face, Muslim fighters battling with U.S. forces in Afghanistan or escaping to Muslim countries, and Islamic extremists ready to kill Americans in a twisted jihad.

Between the network news and the three 24-hour cable news stations, the images are almost inescapable and they seem to paint a relentlessly negative portrait of the Islamic world.

It could be grim stuff if you are a Muslim in the United States, and a full-on public relations nightmare if it's your job to look out for Muslims living here.

But surprisingly, some Muslim leaders in this country say television coverage of their faith hasn't been all bad. In fact, they say, all the attention focused on Islam has given them a unique opportunity to explain the Muslim world to an American public woefully uneducated about one of the world's fastest growing religions.

Those leaders also say when it comes to the Islamic angle of the story, the dominant television news theme since Sept. 11 has been one of tolerance and respect for Muslims, echoing and amplifying President George Bush's message. Like Bush, television reporters have been careful to make clear distinctions between Islamic terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network and peace-loving Muslims. "In general broadcast coverage has been pretty good. I would say there have been a lot of attempts to offer information about Islam, mostly accurate, some of it not so accurate, and some of it biased -- but I would say on the whole not so bad," says Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Islamic advocacy group.

Hooper says television news coverage of Islam is more accurate and features more tolerance than it would have just a decade ago because even though Muslims are still a tiny religious minority in the United States, they continue to move further into the American mainstream. "They are viewed as less foreign and exotic more so than even 10 years ago. It is harder to stereotype people when you are more familiar with them," Hooper said.

He and other Muslim leaders say coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks and the conflict in Afghanistan have given them a chance to appear on television talk shows and in news stories to explain Islamic beliefs and practices. "It is clear that people are hungry for information about Islam right now," Hooper said.

No one is hungrier for that information than television journalists, who, unlike their print colleagues, must balance the news with the sites and sounds being fed from the Islamic world. Many are taking a crash-course in Islam 101, learning about Islam as they report the story. But according to Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, some of those reporters are failing that on-the-job course by making some staggering mistakes about even the most basic Islamic tenets. "The confusion is so deep that it doesn't even get to questions of theology. People cannot even recognize the difference between the Arab ethnicity and the Islamic faith. They can't even deal with that," said Ibish. "We are at such a profound ignorance that we can't tell the difference between being an Arab and being a Muslim, where the two are overlapping but not synonymous.

But could Ibish be asking too much of television news? After all, none of the three major networks has a religion reporter that can readily explain Islam.

ABC News was the exception, but in June they did not renew the contract of their full-time religion correspondent, Peggy Wehmeyer. Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC's World News Tonight, pushed the Disney-owned company to hire a religion reporter, but he also says reporters do not necessarily have to be specialists in order to tell the religious side of the story that has dominated the news since Sept. 11. "It's not that hard to get up to speed in order to describe does the Quran say this, what is the difference between Shia, Sunni and Sufi, etc. And I think a good reporter can do that. We now have a list of imams and mullahs and various other clerics, various other religious scholars and figures in the country who are there at the drop of the hat to help us understand something that quite frankly the whole country needs to understand better," Jennings said.

Jennings, who has lived in and reported from several Muslim countries, gets credit from critics for the breadth of his knowledge. Still, Jennings knows institutional barriers keep the networks from doing more. "I think that newsrooms are uncomfortable with religion because newsrooms are accustomed to dealing with what we have traditionally regarded as more tangible issues. It is a subject which has been uncomfortable for newsrooms for a very long time, we have made progress here, we could make more."

Television and media critics say television reporters have done a reasonably good job learning about Islam and explaining it as they go, and that they have done even better when it comes to getting across President Bush's message of religious tolerance. "And because of that television has been I think more intelligent than usual in its coverage of religious issues," says Los Angeles Times television writer Howard Rosenberg.

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