Koran-burning plan raises questions over role of media

As questions remained on Saturday over whether Pastor Terry Jones would go ahead with plans to burn the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, some are looking at the media’s role in a storm over a fringe religious figure with few followers.

A few months ago, he was an unknown pastor of a 50-person congregation in Gainesville, Florida.
Now his name is plastered across newspaper headlines, blogs, and television screens around the world.

The story of Pastor Terry Jones and his plan to lead a Koran-burning session on the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks was first addressed in a small article on a website called Religion News Service in late July. The item was then referenced by bigger sites like Yahoo, and by late August the news had spread like wildfire: “International Burn a Koran Day” has been a top story at home and abroad, with Jones granting 150 interviews and everyone from Sarah Palin to President Barack Obama to the pope denouncing his plan.

Now, as the world waits to see whether the pastor will go ahead with his idea, questions are being raised about the media’s role in the frenzy surrounding a fringe religious figure with few followers.

Toying with a ‘tinderbox’

An article in The New York Times on Friday about the part played by the press in Jones’ rise to global infamy cited Chris Cuomo, an anchor from TV channel ABC, who posted to his Twitter account: “I am in the media, but think media gave life to this Florida burning … and that was reckless”.

Several editorialists and bloggers have echoed the sentiment. A columnist for the news site of the Discovery Channel accused journalists of “[elevating] a publicity-seeking jester to a king”, and wrote that “the media have mistaken Jones for the voice of the country”. Indeed, as protests against the pastor erupted across the Muslim world, and the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, warned that the lives of US troops could be endangered, the usual hand-wringing over how the press handles a story has taken on a particular urgency.

In an editorial for the Washington Post on Thursday, journalist Howard Kurtz argued that given the tensions between Islam and the West, this kind of news should have been covered more cautiously. “This isn’t like over-covering Lindsay Lohan’s jail sentence”, he wrote. “This is a tinderbox right now.”

Press and White House face similar dilemma

But some understand why journalists and editors ran with the story, especially since the recent controversy over the “ground zero mosque” has revived concerns over “Islamophobia” in the US. “The media picked it up because it’s a part of a larger, disturbing trend of anti-Islamic activity happening in America right now,” New York-based left-wing blogger Rich Boatti said in an interview with France24.com.

Boatti conceded that the extensive media coverage had given Jones “credibility he didn’t merit”. But as news broke on Friday that the pastor was suspending his plans to burn the Koran, Boatti also said all the press attention could have a positive impact: “If it wasn’t for all the coverage by journalists who brought this guy to people’s attention, he wouldn’t be reconsidering”.

Jones has said he is reconsidering because he received assurance from a Florida imam that the “ground zero mosque” would be moved (the imam has denied this). Another factor that might have encouraged Jones to think twice is the phone call he received from US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who urged him to cancel the burning.

But if US authorities may have contributed to Jones’ backing off, they also inevitably helped make him a front-page sensation. As FRANCE 24 correspondent in Washington Philippe Gassot said, “The White House, in expressing its concern, accelerated all the media attention”.

Still, Gassot recognises that the Obama administration faced a catch-22 in dealing with the story: “Rejecting the act gives Jones publicity, but ignoring him would be like approving of what he does”.

Professor Francis Balle, a French specialist in media and communications interviewed by France24.com, gave a similar assessment of journalists, saying that they could not be blamed for taking a closer look at a story generating such buzz. But he added that the fact that Jones can’t seem to make up his mind whether or not he will go through with his plans is an indication that the press should take a step back.

“Now that we see the pastor is crazy, we should stop giving him so much importance”, Balle said. “The story should be relegated to a brief local news item”. Several international news channels including CNN, BBC and FRANCE 24 have decided not to broadcast the pictures if Terry Jones ends up carrying out his plan.  – France24