So which media circus to cover?

So at this point, which subject interests you (or bores you) more, the Rev. Terry Jones story or the story about the story of the Rev. Terry Jones?

As for me and my house, the answer is now officially “both.”

As I wrote the other day, I know that the media cannot wish away these kinds of media circuses, not in a world with multiple cable channels, the World Wide Web and (cue: drum roll) YouTube.

However, we are clearly seeing a glimpse into the future of an important issue in the news. The question of whether the Quran has a different status than other religious texts (or holy objects or religious leaders or whatever), simply because a small percentage of Muslims will react to any threats to the symbols of their faith with violence, is a story that will not go away. It seems to me that a blasphemy law is a blasphemy law, no matter how a nation makes that decision.

So the arguments will continue about the wisdom of Jones having his day in the media sun. Click here for the prototypical New York Times story. Enjoy.

However, the Politico offered a story that led with a very interesting angle on the same old same old. It provided some facts about a subject that does interest me, still. How are journalists supposed to think their way through the crucial decisions that precede the storm? How did they do so in this case?

The answer? Here is the top of the report by Keach Hagey:

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says his group gets evidence of provocative acts involving the Quran all the time, and has issued a handbook to supporters offering guidance on what it should normally do about it — nothing.

“We get videos every day of somebody who shoots the Quran, burns the Quran,” he said. “We normally don’t do anything about it, because we don’t want to give them more attention than they deserve.”

But given what the group perceives to be increased prejudice against American Muslims, especially as the bitter fight over the Islamic center in lower Manhattan has played out all summer, it made an exception to its policy when it learned of Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center’s plan to burn a copy of the Quran on September 11th.

So on July 19 CAIR sent out a press release announcing its intention to respond to “Burn A Koran Day” by distributing free Qurans. The release included a link to Dove World Outreach Center’s Facebook page for “International Burn a Koran Day.” And that was how the threats of an obscure Florida pastor entered the international media blood stream.

As so often the case, the leaders of America’s mainstream newsrooms really didn’t make this call. Instead, CAIR officials decided — I believe that their decision was sad, but wise — to speak out against Jones after going through a kind of triangulation process that will be familiar to anyone who has spent a lot of time in a major newsroom.

This was going to be a story. Why? Timing. Face it, 9/11 is not just another day.

Why else? Because the cultural waters were already troubled by the tsunami of coverage about the proposed mosque near Ground Zero.

Do the math. Even though the news pivoted on an obscure person, in an out-of-the-way news market, this story was almost certainly going to break out. Thus, CAIR pushed the button.

So what happened next? The Politico story includes another calm observation about the craziness.

… Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, said it was ultimately irrelevant whether major news organizations decided to cover the event, since even a single image captured at on a cell phone camera and put online could have devastating consequences.

“Our feeling is, the picture or the image of a pile of Qurans, or copies of the Quran, being burned will live forever in the blogosphere, and it will be used, the way images of Abu Ghraib and the way images of the cartoons of the Prophet were used a few years ago by the radicals, the extremists, not only to recruit more jihadists, but also to deepen the alienation between the Muslim world and the West.”

As a result, the only thing “responsible” news organizations could do, he said, was to provide context. Although Al Arabiya was among the first Arabic news sources to report the story, it was also among the first to report the condemnation of the plan by American religious and military leaders.

All of this took place in a context and the context, as reported by the Politico team, was a story that had already achieved critical mass.

And that was that. The picture was not pretty, but it wasn’t going away. When will yet another story of this kind catch fire in the news? When those same familiar variables of timing, topic and visuals show up — again.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    HOW about the media going on a frenzy about the physical brutalization of Christian human beings in Moslem countries around the world to provide a little journalistic balance to the media hysteria over burning some books??
    Just a few days ago the Egyptian Army attacked a Coptic monastery injuring a number of monks. Why? Because they were building more cells inside the monastery for more monks. They were building them without permits because the Moslem government repeatedly refused to let them build as usually happens in most Moslem countries when Christians need more facilities.
    Meanwhile in Moslem Indonesia Christians praying in a field were just stabbed and bludgeoned by violent Moslems. But why were the Christians praying outdoors?? Because the moslem government had boarded up their church.
    The Associated Press ran a short story on these, but it has been pretty much ignored by the mass media. I only found out these about these two current incidents from the internet and then Googling for more information.

  • Jerry

    Good questions. I had suggested a couple of stories looking back on this circus and I suspect that we’ll see even more which is both appropriate and necessary.

    I happen to also like the NPR story I mentioned in another topic which covered how the media loves such events which was also a contributing factor.

    But in this era when 18% of people believe that the sun revolves around the earth and 1/4 does not know from whom we gained our independence the media has a special responsibility. That’s one big reason I hope you can focus more attention on those stories that do get it right. After all, psychology has proven that reward (including positive attention) is a more effective learning tool than punishment.

  • Perpetua

    I thought it had now been established that it was Al Jazeera that took the story and ran with it.

    Some blogs are saying now that this news event was part of the OIC push to get the UN to pass anti-defamation of religion resolutions.

    So, if CAIR admits they fed it to the Western media and Al Jazeera was pumping it in the Muslim world, maybe it was manufactured news and our Western press took the bait.

  • Jeffrey

    Doesn’t the Eckstrom quote undermine the entire article. He says they got the story idea–and they were the first to talk about the Koran burning–by monitoring social media, not relying on a CAIR press release. Did the rest of the press get fed this story by CAIR or by Jones’ self-promotion?

  • Jerry

    Today’s column by Leonard Pitts is also an interesting perspective on this area. He writes about the terrorist veto

    Maybe you know the term “terrorist veto.” It refers to the ability of a single obscure malcontent, powerless but for his willingness to sacrifice lives, to make himself heard at the highest level of geopolitics and force his way upon the international stage.

    As this case makes oppressively clear, the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have evolved an analog to the terrorist veto. Call it the idiot veto — the ability of a single obscure malcontent, powerless but for his willingness to do some outrageous thing, to make himself heard at the highest level of geopolitics and force his way upon the international stage.

    Our faith in communication to bring people together has occasionally been validated; think of how cellphone video of a dying woman named Neda brought the world to the side of Iranian protesters.

    But often, that faith seems naive, if not misplaced. Mass media are omnivorous and uncritical, magnifying the bizarre and deservedly obscure until history itself spins on the whims of any lone lunatic who is willing to be crazy enough.

    We have yet to figure a way to embrace the promise of new media but avoid the pitfalls. Until we do, we will always be vulnerable to the ability of that lunatic to hold the whole world hostage.

    Our attention is the only weapon he needs.