Thursday, September 16, 2010

Did the journalists who reported on the Koran burning threat understand what they were doing?

Matthew Yglesias offers some common sense about why Terry Jones, the pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Koran, is (or isn't) such a big deal:

[I]t's kind of nuts, isn’t it, that we have the general in charge of an ongoing war commenting on some guy in Florida being a jerk. Even nuttier is that he might well be right that this episode will endanger the lives of Americans soldiers. But that really raises deeper issues about Afghan society and the wisdom and nature of America’s engagement with it. The essence of a digital, globalized world with billions of inhabitants is that there’s always going to be some jerk somewhere doing something ridiculous. “Guy in Florida deliberately trying to antagonize Muslims” can’t become a global news story every time it happens.
In the Bloggingheads clip embedded below this paragraph, Sarah Posner -- a reporter who specializes in religion -- asks why the mainstream media became so fixated on a pastor who has only about 50 congregants. She hypothesizes that the problem is that most of the reporters who covered the story aren't enough . . . like her! That is, they don't specialize in religion, so "they don't know how to evaluate the influence of a particular person."

While I share her incredulity that this became an international news story, I find her explanation hard to believe. Her own passing remark that Jones has only 50 congregants is not beyond the ken of any competent reporter. If anything, you'd expect a generalist reporter to have an especially high standard for when one pastor's statements are a real story.

For instance, Matthew Yglesias (whom I quoted at the beginning of this post) is not a reporter, let alone one with a religion beat. Like me, he's a 29-year-old opinion blogger. He and I can easily see these points, and I don't think this is because we're so extraordinarily perceptive or have any expertise about religion. I don't believe that the reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post lacked the capacity to do what Yglesias and I and so many others (including Dave Weigel and my mom, Ann Althouse) did when we wondered: Wait a minute -- how is this a major news story?

What seems to have been going on for a long time is that the MSM feels that a story is automatically newsworthy as long as it involves religion at all -- completely aside from any normal metrics of newsworthiness. Their standard seems to be based entirely on subject matter, not whether the events are likely to have any broader consequences.

Of course, the Koran burning would have had international consequences if Jones had followed through with it -- but only because of the media's own coverage.

Like it or not, symbolic burnings are pretty commonplace. People burn effigies, flags, love letters, sacred texts. It happens. And usually, it's not very exciting. Think of any kind of object, and there's probably someone somewhere burning it or fecklessly threatening to burn it -- despite, or because of, whoever might be offended if they found out. Normally, major news outlets wouldn't even think of paying any attention to these shenanigans, even if the burned object symbolizes something important.

Here's my point: a symbolic burning doesn't, by its own unaided momentum, inexorably alter anything else in the outside world. This is as true of a pastor burning a Koran as it would be of anything else. The media coverage to date has surely inflamed the Islamic world far more than if the pastor had burned the Koran and the media had ignored it.

As is so often the case, the news coverage itself becomes the story, but the news media rarely admit it. Normally, this is a fairly benign quirk of journalese: Bill Maher has noted that journalists reflexively avoid the first person (singular or plural).

In this case, however, more self-awareness on the MSM's part might very well have saved lives. Now that the story is out there, even though Jones called off the burning, it can be used as a terrorist recruiting tool. We'll probably never be able to pinpoint a causal link from the Koran burning media circus to a specific victim of terrorism, but that doesn't mean there won't be any such causation.

I hope that MSM reporters are pausing to think about what this whole episode means about their own role and responsibility. Reporters don't just passively, neutrally reflect the world; they're willful actors who affect the world. To assume that their effect is always for the better can be literally fatal.


LemmusLemmus said...

ITV interview with Paul McCartney, June 1967:

Q: "Paul, how often have you taken LSD?"

PAUL: (pause) "About four times."

Q: "And where did you get it from?"

PAUL: "Well, you know, if I was to say where I got it from, you know, I mean... it's illegal and everything... it's silly to say that, you know. So I'd rather not say that."

Q: "Don't you believe that this is a matter which you should have kept private?"

PAUL: "Mmm, but the thing is -- I was asked a question by a newspaper, and the decision was whether to tell a lie or tell him the truth. I decided to tell him the truth... but I really didn't want to say anything, you know, because if I had my way I wouldn't have told anyone. I'm not trying to spread the word about this. But the man from the newspaper is the man from the mass medium. I'll keep it a personal thing if he does too you know... if he keeps it quiet. But he wanted to spread it so it's his responsibility, you know, for spreading it not mine."

Q: "But you're a public figure and you said it in the first place and you must have known it would make the newspaper."

PAUL: "Yeah, but to say it is only to tell the truth. I'm telling the truth, you know. I don't know what everyone's so angry about."

Q: "Do you think that you have now encouraged your fans to take drugs?"

PAUL: (clearly and calmly) "I don't think it'll make any difference. I don't think my fans are going to take drugs just because I did, you know. But the thing is -- that's not the point anyway. I was asked whether I had or not. And from then on, the whole bit about how far it's gonna go and how many people it's going to encourage is up to the newspapers, and up to you on television. I mean, you're spreading this now, at this moment. This is going into all the homes in Britain. And I'd rather it didn't. But you're asking me the question -- You want me to be honest -- I'll be honest."

Q: "But as a public figure, surely you've got the responsibility to..."

PAUL: "...No, it's you who've got the responsibility. You've got the responsibility not to spread this NOW. You know, I'm quite prepared to keep it as a very personal thing if you will too. If you'll shut up about it, I will."