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Friday, September 10, 2010

For Once, the Media is Only Partly to Blame

Jones on TVAt this point, it's pretty clear that would-be Quran-burner Terry Jones is just a media troll. If there's one thing this country doesn't need, it's more media trolls. We've got Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Pam Geller, etc. There really shouldn't be any openings in that already saturated job market. But here's Jones, dragging the media off toward Stupidville as easily as any of the other manipulative self-aggrandizers.

First, the big Quran cookout was canceled. Then it turned out that Jones canceled the event for completely made up reasons, claiming that Park51-backers had agreed to move the community center in Manhattan. Where the "protest" was originally about Islam in general, it had suddenly taken a sharp turn and was now about the community center. Of course, the backers said nothing of the sort, so now Jones hints coquettishly that his book burning may be back on. Oh boy, a twist!

For their part, the media are starting to wonder how this obvious frootloop ever got their attention in the first place. The New York Times is running a piece titled, "Coverage of Koran Case Stirs Questions on Media Role," in which that burning question not only isn't answered, but is barely addressed. Basically, all it really does is track how a local story went national. Others address the question more directly.

"The media remains complicit in giving voice to people who should be way on the margins of political debate. But this particular controversy simmered at the local level well before the media (collectively) discovered it," writes The Altantic's Marc Ambinder. "Successful ideologues know how to exploit emotions and moments, and that's what Pastor Jones was able to do. There is also evidence that BEFORE the national U.S. media picked up the story in any significant way, it had already found its way to Taliban and Islamic militant propagandists. That's something you cannot blame the U.S. media for facilitating."

And, of course, it was just one of many anti-Islam outrages that have become the big fad on the right. In a climate where Islam was no big deal -- say, the US just a year or two ago -- Jones' idiocy would've remained a local story. The guy's a fringe character even in Gainesville, where he's the local crank, and his congregation consists of only a handful of kooks. Normally, he would speak for no one.

But these are not normal times. You don't have to look far to find people willing to capitalize on Jones to attack Muslims as inherently violent. The reasoning works this way: Jones is going to insult 1.5 billion people, some of those people may become violent as a reaction, therefore all Muslims are violent. But here's a fun game: if I were to burn a bunch of Bibles and the media made a big deal out of it, would you be willing to bet everything you own that no Christian anywhere in the world would protest that action violently? It'd be a fool's wager and we all know it.

The media are less to blame for pumping Jones up than the haters are. It was the constant "Islam is evil!" drumbeat from rightwing demagogues that catapulted the author of Islam is of the Devil to national prominence. As I noted yesterday, other than the planned burning of Qurans, there is virtually no difference between the opinions of Jones and those of other prominent media trolls like Sarah Palin or Pam Geller. In a media context, he just jumped on their "Muslims are scary" bandwagon. By exaggerating the importance of a community center in Manhattan, they also exaggerated the importance of nutjobs like Jones. While Jones is most definitely not their creation, his place in the national context is. They set the table, he sat down.

Not that the media are entirely faultless. Greg Mitchell has put together a bunch of quotes from media figures and it's hard to find fault with them; Howard Kurtz says the "whole thing was covered like the Balloon Boy hoax," for example. But again, without the backdrop of simmering anti-Muslim hate threatening to boil over, the story would've been without any broader context. And, without that context, it wouldn't have been at all attractive to the media.

Who turned a stunt by a culty little Florida church into an international incident? To answer that question, you need to admit that anti-Muslim bigotry in America was an international story before Jones ever showed up on anyone's radar. And who's responsible for that?

We all know the answer to that question.


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