Media, Politics

Analysis: Does the media help the ordinary crazies become successful, famous, dangerous crazies?

By Sipho Hlongwane 11 September 2010

This isn’t the first time religious fundamentalists in America have burnt the Qur’an. In 2008, the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka, Kansas, a really nasty and crazy bunch of hatemongers, set fire to a copy of the Qur’an and filmed it to make sure everyone knew what they had done. Nobody cared. What’s so different about the story of Florida’s “Burn a Qur’an” pastor, who has sparked controversy throughout the world? By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

Pastor Terry Jones is not a very decisive man. On 8 September, he was definitely going to burn the Qur’an on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Then, after the entire world’s eyes turned on him and he drew almost universal condemnation from people of all creeds, he cancelled plans to host his “Burn a Qur’an” day. After talking to Imam Muhammad Musri of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, Jones told the reporters camped outside his church he would cancel the book-burning after striking a deal with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf of the Cordoba Initiative to move construction of Cordoba House away from its current, controversial position. Jones, a nobody from a town few knew, came to be seen as a “leader” turning the world around his finger. Imam Musri immediately refuted Jones’s claims, saying that they had reached no such agreement. He had merely promised Jones a meeting with Rauf on 11 September in New York. Jones now claims he was “deceived”, and may retract his retraction and go ahead with his Qur’an burning. Maybe. Nothing is set in stone yet.

But let’s go back in this ridiculous saga, a little. How did this story become so big in the first place? Other fringe organisations have done far worse, and generated far less coverage and outrage. Westboro Baptist Church has been branded the most hated organisation in America for a variety of offences. This provisional wing of the lunatic fringe which previously picketed against gay marriages and at the funeral of a soldier, have filmed a burning of the Qur’an before, which hardly generated a murmur in the media.

The difference in this case, where the church is just threatening to set the holy book of Islam alight, is the unique congruence of events, as well as a slow news week.

The day that marks the end of Ramadan, a very important Islamic holiday, fell on almost the same day as 11 September, the day when Islamist terrorists attacked New York and Washington, nine years ago killing more than 3,000 people. 9/11 remains a deep wound in America’s psyche, and the potential for blowout is great. Eid al-Fitr is supposed to be a joyous occasion, and many Muslim clerics had advised that the festivities be scaled back. They expressed these fears based on the heated debate (some would call it hysteria) surrounding the proposed Cordoba House, a Muslim cultural centre to be built two blocks away from Ground Zero where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre had stood. Right wingers snatched the issue up, created short, obfuscating catch phrases like “Ground Zero Mosque” or “Victory Mosque” and presented Cordoba House as Islamic triumph on the site of 9/11.

Then came the announcement a week or so before 9/11, that a tiny church in Florida was planning to burn copies of the Qur’an to raise awareness about “the teachings and ideologies of Islam”. Despite the differences in intention and philosophy between Jones and Rauf (except that Rauf, unlike Jone, is a polished and sophisticated thinker and, well, sane), the media found the perfect foil to the Cordoba House controversy. It was the antithesis, so to say, to the “Ground Zero” debate. The paths of Rauf and Jones have been intertwined, and Jones loves it. It’s not every day that a part-time used furniture salesman who sports a massive set of mutton chops and has 50 followers gets to play an important role in the national dialogue.

The news of the planned Qur’an burnings spread across the world very quickly, and sparked protests in Afghanistan and Indonesia, prompting the top US commander in Afghanistan, as well the US embassy in Kabul, to sharply criticise the Gainesville church’s plans. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama spoke out against Jones, as well as countless other religious, social and political leaders. Lest I be accused of talking this up, a protester has already been shot dead by Nato troops in the north of Afghanistan, and the Qur’an has yet to be set alight in Florida.

But the sharp ideological divide that has arisen in the American society over the last 20 years or so, has also added flavour to media positioning; the introduction of the Fox News right-wing talk shows then spiced it up considerably. Not that the Rupert Murdoch-owned bunch is any stranger to fanatically skewed reporting (Sarah Palin = good, Obama = bad), they’ve been actively involved in organising the political events they would then “report” on. And, of course, the left-leaning MSNBC would have slammed them for bias. Everybody happy?

It is in this polarised world that we need to look at the media’s role in creating the news we cover. Given the potential for violence around the world, was the media right to report this story in the first place? Had the mobile satellite vans from the big television networks not descended on Gainesville, very few people would have known about this. At the very least, there would have been no riots. On the other hand, if the media exists to keep people informed on things that matter to them (and this matters to many people), then surely it has a duty to report on the news, no matter how controversial, and let the chips fall where they may? There’s also the question of deciding what is newsworthy, and what isn’t, and anticipating what might become a major story, and making sure the competition doesn’t beat you to it.

Articles such as this one contribute to the hype and world-wide recognition of crazies like Terry Jones and give militants like al Qaeda the very attention they seek (did I mention that I think Terry Jones is genuinely mad?).  And since I’m examining this situation and the reaction of the media from the safety of my desk in Johannesburg, I surely can’t be part of the problem, right? Right? DM

Read more: The New York Times, The Daily Maverick.

Photo: Dove World Outreach Center church pastor Terry Jones (C) walks back to the church with associate pastor Wayne Sapp after talking with the media in Gainesville, Florida September 10, 2010. REUTERS/Scott Audette


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