Coverage of Koran Case Stirs Questions on Media Role
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.”
In some ways, this week’s events were the culmination of a year’s worth of hateful statements and stunts by Mr. Jones and the few dozen members of his church.
Mr. Jones started to make noise in Gainesville in the summer of 2009, when he posted a sign outside his church that read “Islam is of the devil.” The Gainesville Sun (which is owned by The New York Times Company) wrote about the sign, under the headline “Anti-Islam church sign stirs up community outrage.”
He told The Sun that the sign would not be his last.
The newspaper soon published an investigation into what it called the church’s “financial abuses,” which included a profit-making eBay furniture sales business operating on the church’s property.
The congregation’s protests continued last fall, when some children from the church wore anti-Islam shirts to school, prompting another article by The Sun, which was picked up by The Associated Press and republished by outlets like USA Today and Al Arabiya, an Arabic language news network.
People with the same anti-Islam shirts sometimes roamed the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, said Fiona Mc Laughlin, a professor at the university, prompting a counterprotest with T-shirts that read, “Ignorance is of the devil.”
The church “never really rested after that first billboard,” said Jacki Levine, the managing editor of The Sun. She said the newspaper’s staff members had repeatedly discussed how to be “responsible” in its coverage — “We walked as carefully as we could walk.”
Islam was not Mr. Jones’s only target. Church members also held protests against Craig Lowe, an openly gay man who was elected mayor of Gainesville in April.
Mr. Jones’s announcement about the Koran burning gained only a little attention at first, with a single short article published by a Web site called Religion News Service. That article was subsequently mentioned by bigger sites, like Yahoo, and by the end of the July Mr. Jones had been booked on CNN, where the host Rick Sanchez called his plan “crazy” but added, “At least he has got the guts to come on this show and face off.”
Alarmed by negative mentions about Gainesville in overseas news outlets, Mr. Lowe released a statement Aug. 3 labeling Mr. Jones’s church a “tiny fringe group and an embarrassment to our community.”
News executives said the proposed burning took on a greater significance after the protests in Afghanistan and in other Muslim countries. In Kabul last Sunday, up to 500 people attended a protest at which Mr. Jones was burned in effigy, according to The A.P.
That, too, is when Ms. Mc Laughlin took notice. With 11 other professors, she wrote a column for The Sun condemning the plan titled “The world is watching.”
“We just saw everything escalating,” she said Thursday, citing the “sum effect” of all the coverage and the ensuing reactions. (The New York Times wrote a substantial article about Mr. Jones on August 26.)
On Thursday, before Mr. Jones suspended his plans, The A.P. determined that it would not distribute pictures of Korans being burned, restating a policy not to cover events that are “gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend.”
“There are lots of other similarly offensive images that we choose not to run all the time,” Ms. Carroll said. “Most people don’t know that because, of course, we don’t run them.”
Before the suspension, CNN and Fox News Channel said they would not show any images of a Koran being burned.
Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, said in an e-mail message that the newspaper had “no policy against publishing things that might offend someone — lots of people are offended by lots of things — but we try to refrain from giving widespread offense unless there is some offsetting journalistic purpose.”
“A picture of a burning book contributes nothing substantial to a story about book-burning, so the offense seems entirely gratuitous,” Mr. Keller continued. “The freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish.”
The episode has given rise to at least a little soul-searching within news organizations. Chris Cuomo, an ABC News anchor, wrote Thursday afternoon on Twitter, “I am in the media, but think media gave life to this Florida burning … and that was reckless.”