Koran Burning And Media Navel Gazing

The media is now starting to look at it's own role in the whole Koran burning story, but the truth is that there really wasn't any way they could've ignored the story.

After spending the better part of two weeks elevating an unknown “Pastor” of a church consisting of no more than 70 people to the status of international sensation, the media is now engaging in it’s time honored practice of reporting on its own reporting:

Terry Jones did it again–jerked the media’s chain, as he’s done since the start of this bizarre little episode.

It was almost like blackmail: move the Manhattan mosque or I’ll burn all these books!

Suddenly he was the savior: he had a deal, the Islamic center would be moved, he’d call off the Koran bonfire and everyone would be happy.

Except there was no deal, and the preening pastor with a few dozen followers had bamboozled all the networks into hours of live coverage.

This whole thing was covered like the Balloon Boy hoax, but with potentially deadly consequences.

And like the mosque mess, the Florida controversy was brewing for a while before getting big-time coverage.

President Obama lent his voice, telling George Stephanopoulos in an interview that aired Thursday that Jones’s scheme would be “a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda.”

It was way back in July that this story first came to light and, as Alex Knapp noted at the time, there didn’t seem to be much to the story beyond a dumb stunt by a minor church in Florida. However, thanks to the fact that it was a slow news summer, and thanks in no small part to the furor that erupted over the “Ground Zero Mosque,” the story took off:

A renegade pastor and his tiny flock set fire to a Koran on a street corner, and made sure to capture it on film. And they were ignored.

That stunt took place in 2008, involving members of the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kan., an almost universally condemned group of fundamentalists who also protest at military funerals.

But plans for a similar stunt by another fringe pastor, Terry Jones, have garnered worldwide news media attention this summer, attention that peaked Thursday when he announced he was canceling — and later, that he had only “suspended” — what he had dubbed International Burn a Koran Day. It had been scheduled for Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Unlike the Koran-burning by Westboro Baptist, Mr. Jones’s planned event in Gainesville, Fla., coincided with the controversy over the proposed building of a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan near ground zero and a simmering summerlong debate about the freedoms of speech and religion.

Mr. Jones was able to put himself at the center of those issues by using the news lull of summer and the demands of a 24-hour news cycle to promote his anti-Islam cause. He said he consented to more than 150 interview requests in July and August, each time expressing his extremist views about Islam and Sharia law.

By the middle of this week, the planned Koran burning was the lead story on some network newscasts, and topic No. 1 on cable news — an extraordinary amount of attention for a marginal figure with a very small following. On Thursday, President Obama condemned Mr. Jones’s plan, and his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said that there were “more people at his press conferences than listen to his sermons,” in a bit of media criticism.

Mr. Jones’s plan, announced in July, slowly gained attention in August, particularly overseas. It became a top story in the United States this week after protests against Mr. Jones in Afghanistan and after the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, warned that the Koran burning could endanger troops.

“Before there were riots and heads of states talking about him, it could have been a couple of paragraphs in a story about Sept. 11 commemorations,” Kathleen Carroll, the executive editor of The Associated Press, said Thursday. “It’s beyond that now.”

But, why did it go beyond there ? Did this story really need to get more coverage than it did back in July ?After all, if the American media had ignored Terry Jones the way it did Fred Phelps’s Koran burning two years ago, then protesters would not have taken to the streets in Kabul (because they wouldn’t have known about the event most likely), General Petraeus would not have felt compelled to speak out, and yesterday’s  bizarre media circus never would have happened.

As Sarah Lacy notes, though, the media itself is now caught up in a news-generation cycle that it really doesn’t have control over:

The media has long wrestled with how much it should give the public what it wants versus what it thinks the public needs, and it became more pronounced as the readership of stories became immediately measurable and comparable. Mad about Lindsey Lohan’s jail time being covered by serious news outlets? Groaning at another TechCrunch post about the iPhone? Well, then stop reading, watching, and commenting on them. Like a kid throwing a tantrum, the easiest way to get media you don’t like or think is irresponsible to go away is to stop paying attention. If a blog posts in a forest and no one is there to comment does it really exist? Not according to most bloggers.

But in the last year or so social media has made it more than an issue of we-write, you-read, so-we-write-more-until-you-stop-reading. Social media has given the world a persistent, open conversation. It’s no longer up to media to legitimize and publicize a story. On stories like this one, media has to choose to respond or not to a story that’s already been legitimized and publicized. This was a conversation before NPR, BBC or any other major news outlet weighed in. Once it has become enough of a conversation that world leaders were having to comment—how does the media not cover that?

This is a fair point, I think. The “Ground Zero Mosque” story was getting intense coverage in the right-wing blogosphere and on talk radio long before it became a major media story after Sarah Palin decided to weigh in on the issue. From there, it took off on a course of it’s own, and became a real firestorm when the President of the United States decided to weigh in.

What we’ve got, in other words, is a new media culture that makes it easier for the crazies to make news and, as Andrew Sullivan notes, that’s not a good thing:

We live in an era of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, exploited, used and manipulated by politicians, for their own purposes, and used by the media for its own. This has always been a dangerous and toxic combination, inimical to liberal society, dangerous to secular democratic politics, and today, something that can also lead to global warfare and destruction on an unimaginable scale. This blog has long warned of its dangers and consequences – and yet the role of religious fanaticism in politics only seems to grow, thanks to cynical Republicans and weak-kneed Democrats.

The new media, moreover, makes it especially combustible and unstoppable, whatever the mainstream media decides to cover or not cover. Does anyone think it will matter if the AP does not cover the now “suspended” but possible burnings? Anyone with a cell-phone camera can send these images within seconds across the globe. Any bigot can incite mass violence in a culture already primed for it. And so there is something almost inevitable about the atrocity in front of us. And sure, enough, Fred Phelps is now threatening to burn Korans this weekend if Terry Jones does not.

My point, I suppose, is that this kind of cycle in this kind of environment is something that once started, no one can stop. It is a function of fringe Christian fundamentalism finally engaging fringe Islamist fundamentalism in a war of increasing terror and intolerance in a seamless global media world. It is the responsibility of all of us of actual faith rather than fanaticism to stand up and oppose this before it engulfs us all.

But you reap what you sow. You turn a benign Muslim community center into a “stab in the heart” of Americans (in Sarah Palin’s words) and someone soon will up the ante. Which is why this summer has felt so ominous to me; and the forces itching for full-scale religious warfare more powerful and more unstoppable than any of the restraints in between – from the West Bank to Kandahar and Gainesville and Wasilla. One can hope and pray that this flare-up will be a warning prevented in time for the culture to take a deep breath and understand the consequences of religious fundamentalism openly embraced in the public square. But hope is scarce in this environment.

I’m not sure that I’m quite as pessmisstic as Sullivan on this topic, but this summer has done very little to give comfort to those of us who see the increasing merging of religion and politics, not matter where it happens in the world, as a step backwards.

In the end, I don’t think the media could have ignored Terry Jones. He’s part of the culture we live in now. And that’s the real problem.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    Years ago folks in the web development communities started talking about an “attention economy.”  The idea was that we were moving from goods scarcity, past information scarcity, to an attention-limited economy.  We don’t have time to read, watch, or process it all.
    I guess it’s not surprising that there would be surprise winners in an attention economy.  Network effects and information cascades say there should be.
    Perhaps even, with the disappearance of shared sources (network news, everyone watching 60 Minutes ever week) these cascades become the one thing pulling people together.

  2. narciso says:

    It fed the media’s premises, about the “real enemy’ for them, who aren’t terrorist or their
    sympathizers, but the bitter clingers, Jones, is particularly ignorant, on the subject, but only
    in relative comparison to those who interviewed him

  3. Mr. Prosser says:

    I think the media’s lapse is in not putting Jones in perspective as the story escalated. He is not a high-level member of the clergy of any denomination, he’s a low-level scammer running a 70-member congregation out of a steel building on which he slapped a cross. Of course, any time the media can evoke a reaction from government and more or less high-ranking politicians the happier they are.