Did Media Blow 'Quran Burning' Out Of Proportion?

Has media coverage of the planned burning of Qurans by the Rev. Terry Jones and his tiny Florida congregation given this provocative event too big a stage? Or has the coverage been reasonably proportioned in view of the larger controversy over a proposed Islamic center in New York City? Melissa Block talks with NPR's David Folkenflik about coverage of the event.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This all began as a local story about an obscure Florida pastor and his small congregation, but it's clearly anything but local now. This morning on ABC's "Good Morning America," President Obama called Pastor Terry Jones's plan to burn copies of the Quran a recruitment bonanza for al-Qaida.

President BARACK OBAMA: I just hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans. That this country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance.

BLOCK: The story reached a fever pitch in large part because of international media coverage. I asked NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, to trace the evolution of this story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, it started off as a very small story. There was actually a tiny bit of coverage on a local TV station, and that got sent to CAIR. CAIR is this group - a Muslim rights organization called the Council on American-Islamic Relations. And they issued this statement in - around the 19th of July saying it's important that we take this as a day of education in response to what seemed to them a very hateful act.

Officials there told me they often tend to ignore such things, but there had been this pipe bombing in Jacksonville, Florida, in May. That's just 75 miles away. This group had been involved in some other acts that they saw as very hostile to Muslims, and they said let's not let this go. Let's talk about this.

And that really sparked coverage but really in foreign outlets, a lot of foreign news organizations. Then a handful of blogs here in the States, a couple of Florida news organizations, and suddenly, CNN and The Associated Press really picked up the story in late July, ran with it. And it followed sustained coverage. In recent days, as you talked about it, as we just heard, public officials talked about it, capped by the president himself. And it became a big story.

BLOCK: A story also about the reaction to the planned event as opposed to the planned event itself. We were hearing a lot of anger from listeners. And I wanted to read to you an email that we got from a listener named Homer Peters(ph) in Henderson, Nebraska, basically saying why doesn't the media just ignore Terry Jones. He says this: The problem only exists due to someone desiring a national platform to display his rhetoric. Get all of the media to stay home and Terry Jones can do as he pleases to his faithful. I do not need or want to know about something so trivial.

And there is a real question here of does media interest in this story just amplify someone who really has no constituency?

FOLKENFLIK: Well - and that's exactly the right question. It's playing out inside the media itself. You see commentators like Dave Weigel of Slate.com saying the media ignores it, deny the pastor oxygen, it'll go away. But it is a story. It's not utterly irrelevant, even though it's an incendiary stunt -incendiary both literally and figuratively.

This is also, you know, happening in the midst of this debate, a debate more immediately about the construction of the Islamic center that Greg talked about near ground zero and a larger debate about, in some ways, the role that American Muslims get to play in American society. This is a data point. The very notion of burning holy texts is offensive to Muslims, as it is to people of other faiths, and yet, you know, it becomes a symbolic moment at which we can talk about these broader issues.

BLOCK: David, do you think there are lessons from this story that news executives take away?

FOLKENFLIK: I think one of the real questions news executives are wrestling with - and you saw it with executives from the Fox News Channel today saying they basically provide almost no coverage, AP saying they would provide only a proportionate coverage - that it has to be done responsibly and in context. The idea is not to inflame people abroad. After all, there were deadly riots in Pakistan after those cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspapers. The notion is it's a news event. It's a data point. It should be covered. But people have to really think carefully about it because there are repercussions.

BLOCK: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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