In 2008, members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., burned a Quran on a street corner in Washington, D.C. If you didn’t know that, it’s because the media largely ignored it. The church was already notorious for its virulent homophobia and offensive demonstrations at military funerals.
But this media restraint didn’t hold when an extremist pastor in Florida announced that he would burn Islam’s holy book. The Rev. Terry Jones was well-known in Gainesville, with his “No Homo Mayor” signs directed at the current officeholder. But he was not known elsewhere.
The Internet, social media and traditional media would combine to change that.
The arc of this story from obscure Internet item to headline news starring President Barack Obama and Gen. David Petraeus is chronicled in an article in the Guardian, a British newspaper. It’s a sad reflection on how easily fringe characters can be pushed to center stage and what constitutes news in an avaricious 24/7 news cycle.
Before the big blowup, Jones led a dwindling group of churchgoers. His ironically named Dove World Outreach Center was losing its reach. He had written a book called “Islam is the Devil,” which drew little attention. But in July, a Facebook link to a website about the book led readers to a request to send photos of how they planned to burn the Quran on Sept. 11. Most people who commented on the stunt denounced it.
However, on July 21, the Religion News Service ran an article about the prospective book burnings. The Council on American-Islamic Relations had the perfect response when asked for a comment: “We don’t want to do anything that would be reactive.”
Alas, others would fill the vacuum.
A few days later, Jones took his hate bait to YouTube, and the mainstream media swallowed it whole. By July 30, Jones was appearing on CNN. On Aug. 3, the Gainesville mayor pleaded with the media to ignore this small-time pastor, but the condemnations poured in from around the globe, which only served to stoke the controversy. By Aug. 25, when the New York Times published a profile of Jones, more than 150 media outlets had interviewed him.
On Sept. 5, about 500 people in Kabul, Afghanistan, took part in an anti-Jones protest. The next day, Gen. Petraeus weighed in, calling the book-burnings a danger to the troops. After that, Jones was denounced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.
Jones appears to be backing off, but the stench of his message carries on. The power he wielded could have been undercut if he had been ignored. But that would have required restraint and perspective, which are two traits in increasingly short supply as traditional media grapple with the filters-off phenomenon of new media, where newsmakers are born with self-made videos or a few keystrokes.
Obama on Friday said he worried about Quran-burning copycats. That’s almost a certainty now that the route to gaining attention has been mapped out. Professional journalists should not drop their standards and go all-in to compete with the clutter of information available today. As this episode shows, it’s still important to know when to walk away.
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