The Quran-Burning Coverage Conundrum

Terry Jones i i

hide captionPastor Terry Jones speaks to the media outside the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. Much attention has been paid to the pastor's threat to burn copies of the Quran.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Terry Jones

Pastor Terry Jones speaks to the media outside the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. Much attention has been paid to the pastor's threat to burn copies of the Quran.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Brooke Gladstone is the host of On The Media from WNYC.

Pastor Terry Jones was clearly on another planet when he told ABC’s Terry Moran that his plan to burn Qurans was divinely inspired. Jesus “was very nice,” he said, “so I think Jesus would not run around burning books, but I think he would burn this one.”

But the pastor had feet solidly planted on terra firma when it came to working the media.

You can read NPR's coverage of the latest developments in this story by clicking here.

We love crazies — they pull in audiences like a tractor beam. Even the mildly aberrant — say, a runaway bride — can dominate news cycles for days. But there was much more to the story of Pastor Jones. He is the fun-house mirror reflection of a certain segment of Americans. To politicians accused of racism or intolerance, he provided cover — “we would never do that.” To the world outside, he offered confirmation of what they believed they already knew.

The problem for journalists was that in this political season, the story grew like a snowball rolling down a hill, and we have to take some responsibility for pushing it. The media, awash in controversy over the so-called ground zero mosque, smelled a pungent parable in the pastor’s tale. So how should we have covered it?

“This is a desperate man seeking the attention of the better part of the world,” said Press Secretary Robert Gibb. “I think we would all be served, for the safety of ourselves and for those that protect us each day, to cover something besides him every hour on the hour.”

As the week wore on, many mainstream news outlets made public avowals of their intention to approach the story with an emphasis on context, and a minimum of visuals. Fox News said it wouldn’t cover the story at all. The AP declared that its policy is not to cover events “that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend,” which obviously this was. As Jones said:  “A radical message is necessary. … We expect the Muslims that are here in America to respect, honor, obey, submit to our Constitution.”

Under the Constitution, people have the right to brazenly misconstrue the Constitution.

Small wonder that America’s freedoms of speech and religion are so often misunderstood abroad — given the muddled debate that dominates the media here. And in fact, this story was not just about politics and intolerance. It was also, at its heart, a proxy argument among a wide range of ruminating, saliva-spewing, talking heads over our Constitution.

Most journalists here are guided by what’s called a sphere of consensus. What is commonly held to be outside that sphere is rarely heard. There was a time when moral condemnation of slavery was outside that sphere. But now with so many people producing media, the contours of acceptable speech have grown indistinct. We reap the whirlwind of unbounded freedom of the press, now virtually indistinguishable from freedom of speech.

We say our enemies hate our freedom. But sometimes we seem to hate it, too.

Weeks before it caused a ripple here, reports of the pastor’s plan, carried by the Internet, reverberated across the Middle East. So did the American fracas that followed, generating much wonderment and confusion. The impact abroad is a real story — but it wasn’t created by our media.

It is, in a sense, about our media.

You can listen to this story by tuning in to On The Media this weekend on your local NPR station.

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