The extremist groups represented a tiny sector of non-governmental organizations but captivated the media with their news releases, leading to major news coverage, which in turn legitimized the groups, attracted donations and connected the groups to powerful conservative think tanks, "The Fringe Effect" study appearing in the December issue of the American Sociological Review said.
"I'm not saying the media had a direct role in facilitating these connections," such as overlapping boards of directors, in which two or more groups share the same directors, sociologist Christopher Bail, author of the study, told United Press International.
But newspaper and television coverage of fringe groups with messages seeking to inspire anti-Muslim and Islamic fear and anger gave the groups "increased visibility and created the misperception they were mainstream organizations, and this perception enabled them to secure funding and build social networks that they may not been able to do otherwise," said Bail, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assistant sociology professor.
By contrast, moderate groups making up the vast majority of civil society organizations hardly made the news, Bail's peer-reviewed study found.
Bail used plagiarism-detection software to compare 1,084 news releases about Muslims from 120 non-governmental organizations with more than 50,000 TV news transcripts and newspaper articles produced from 2001 to 2008.
The software detected similarities between the news releases and news stories reported by The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Times, CBS News, CNN and Fox News Channel.
The software did not distinguish between stories originated by the news organizations and those generated by news agencies such as UPI.
Bail told UPI this was a shortcoming but did not change the study's findings.
"Anti-Muslim fringe organizations dominated the mass media via displays of fear and anger," while mainstream non-profit groups depicting Muslims as peaceful, contributing members of U.S. society got little coverage, Bail writes in the study.
"As a result, public condemnations of terrorism by Muslims have received little media attention, but organizations spreading negative messages continue to stoke public fears that Muslims are secretly plotting to overthrow the U.S. government," Bail said in a separate statement.
"Institutional amplification of this emotional energy ... created a gravitational pull or 'fringe effect' that realigned inter-organizational networks and altered the contours of mainstream discourse itself," he writes in the study, subtitled "Civil Society Organizations and the Evolution of Media Discourse about Islam since the September 11th Attacks."
When asked by UPI if his research indicated whether the fringe was moving toward the mainstream or the mainstream was moving toward the fringe, he said, "The mainstream appears to be moving toward the fringe."
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, told UPI his advocacy group has "seen anti-Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim hate groups moving toward the mainstream, and they're receiving tremendous funding."
But he said CAIR sees the growing anti-Muslim sentiment not tied to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as much as to the planned construction of a Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.
The project's organizers first presented their plans to a local community board in May 2010.
"We've seen that kick off a wave of Islamophobia in America," Hooper told UPI.
Bail agreed the Park51 center "was a key moment," followed by Florida evangelical pastor Terry Jones' widely covered threats he later carried out to burn the Koran, the sacred text of Islam.
But Bail told UPI anti-Muslim fringe groups laid the groundwork that gave Jones a platform after the Sept. 11 attacks, most notably between 2004 and 2007.
"By the time the Koran burning came along, the groups had amassed tens of millions of dollars and had considerable political influence," he said.