Florida Quran burning, Afghanistan violence raise questions about the power of media blackouts

Last fall, pastor Terry Jones was all over the news with his threats to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. Seven months later, he followed through, which you probably learned about after rioters in Afghanistan killed a number of United Nations workers and Afghans.

Jones oversaw the burning of a single Quran on March 20 in a thinly attended event at his small Gainesville, Fla., church. Far from the media spectacle of last September, no local news organizations and just one correspondent for an international wire service covered it.

And yet the reaction in Afghanistan is pretty much what people predicted: condemnations, riots and killing.

The way this news leapfrogged over most of the United States to Afghanistan and Pakistan shows how some stories quietly work their way across the Web until someone or something calls attention to them.

And it raises vexing questions for the media about their power to dampen or amplify a story by deciding whether or how much to cover an event – particularly when they know someone is trying to use them.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Last fall, Poynter’s Kelly McBride was among those who advised journalists not to be manipulated into giving Jones the attention that could propel a Quran burning from a backwoods stunt to an international spark. General David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama said the stunt would endanger U.S. troops and further the aims of terrorists.

The pastor backed down. The media moved on.

Jones started anew in January, this time promoting a mock “trial” of the Quran on March 20 and egging on Muslims to defend their sacred text. After a few local stories about Jones’ plans, coverage dried up.

Between March 20 and the Afghanistan riots on April 1, most Americans wouldn’t have known that a Quran had been burned in Gainesville unless they fell into a few relatively narrow groups:

For those 10 days or so, Jones seemed to have been denied the attention he craved.

If a Quran is burned in a church and local media isn’t there to see it…

During the ramp-up to “International Burn a Koran Day” last fall, it was clear that “the only way [Jones] was getting oxygen was by us giving him oxygen,” said Gainesville Sun Managing Editor Jacki Levine. So earlier this year, when the newspaper got press releases for “International Judge the Koran Day,” editors responded differently.

“We felt we would treat it as if we would treat anything else that didn’t seem to have any legitimacy and seemed to be a staged press event,” Levine said. “We ignored it.”

That’s what Muhammad Musri wanted. Musri, an Orlando imam and the president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, became involved with Jones last fall when he tried to convince Jones to call off the burning. When local reporters contacted Musri in January to comment on the upcoming “trial,” he grew concerned that the story was gaining traction.

So he sent a statement to local and national media – all the outlets that traveled to Gainesville last fall – asking them to ignore Jones’ event, or at least report on it in a way that wouldn’t incite violence abroad. After that, Musri told me, “I don’t know who decided what, but I didn’t hear anything from anyone.”

He was told by some students and a film crew from London that they didn’t see any journalists at the church on March 20. As he tracked the story for the next week or so, he felt pretty good. Sure, there were a few reports scattered around the Web, but they weren’t drawing much attention. Even a condemnation by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari a couple of days after the burning didn’t have the impact he feared.

“The story is out there, but it needs a celebrity or president to point the attention of the populace to it,” Musri said. “As long as most people don’t know about it, it doesn’t matter, really.”

Afghan protestors shout anti-U.S. slogans during a demonstration in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on Sunday, April 3, 2011. The group is demonstrating against the burning of a Quran in Florida. (Rahmat Gul/AP)

So he was “shocked” to learn on April 1 that violence had broken out in Afghanistan, spurred by mullahs during Friday prayers and Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s comments that Jones should be brought to justice.

That’s when the story reared up, unable to be sequestered as an act of extremism that should be ignored.

News abroad, but not at home

Andrew Ford had covered the story last fall for Agence France-Presse, and he returned to the church on March 20. He filed his story late that night. Within a couple of hours – now Monday morning – Ford’s story was on Yahoo News and Google News.

Ford told me he tracked his story in the first 24 hours to see how far it spread. Of the 27 links he sent me, just seven are American sources: New York magazine, NPR, USA Today, the New York Daily News, Creative Loafing, Google and Yahoo. Religion News Service also covered it the first day.

On March 22, a story was published in Pakistan: “Holy Quran desecrated in Florida church.” From there, Pakistani and Indian news outlets reported on denouncements by Pakistan government officials, complaints to the UN, and a bounty placed on Jones by a Muslim extremist group.

Demonstrations were planned for that Friday in Pakistan. A Christian news service reported that two Christians were killed, Bibles were burned and a few churches were attacked. (I didn’t find corroborating reporting by other news outlets.)

Meanwhile, even as a couple of updates were posted on Jones’ group’s websites, there was barely a ripple back in the U.S.

No social media uprising

Musri, who never saw Ford’s story, attributed the spread overseas to self-publishing, social media and groups driving their agendas: YouTube, Facebook, Ustream, satellite TV, websites of the church and its spinoff group, Islamophobic blogs, and leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and Lebanon.

I’ve written before about how provocateurs such as James O’Keefe can drive media coverage by publicizing their own version of events. But this doesn’t look like an instance in which social media and self-publishing subverted traditional media:

These numbers don’t add up to a social media revolution.

The limited reach of a media blackout

Instead, this episode seems to show the limitations, as well as the reach, of traditional media.

Local media didn’t dictate international coverage of an extremist whose actions don’t represent his community, his culture, or his religion. Yet an international wire service, relying on a single stringer, put this story in front of government officials who seized on it.

If Musri influenced the media to divert their eyes – I can’t say if he did or how much – he did it because he got in front of the story. Once the first satellite truck pulls up, it’s a case of media brinksmanship. (Musri said journalists told him as much last fall.)

The difficulty in covering a made-for-media event like this is that the event itself isn’t necessarily newsworthy. The news is in the uncertain reaction of its target audience – and that audience isn’t Americans.

“His only weapon in doing this was what we gave him,” Levine said of the coverage of Jones last fall. “There was nothing intrinsic that they did that was worthy of the attention, other than the fact that it created a reaction.”

When Poynter’s Kelly McBride and I discussed the ethical considerations of coverage, she pointed out that it’s not just a matter of whether the media covers an event, but how proportionate the coverage is to its importance.

If the burning of a single Quran by a fringe pastor dominates the news and people die in the ensuing violence, does the media share blame? If the media doesn’t cover the story and people still die, did they fail to inform their audience of an incendiary event?

Would shining a spotlight on the proposed burning have prevented it? Or does the lack of simple cause-and-effect connections show that so much of what happens post-publication is out of the media’s hands?

Despite the deaths in Afghanistan, Musri said he thinks he had some impact. But he also thinks the story has gotten less attention because there’s real news going on in the Middle East – those other social media revolutions we’ve been talking about in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. (Even so, he says, Hezbollah, Libyan and Iranian television are pushing the Quran burning story to provoke anti-American sentiment.)

If Ford hadn’t taken that assignment for AFP, perhaps Jones still would be in the shadows. On the other hand, Ford said, his story was the only impartial depiction of this bit of theater. His story noted that this wasn’t a true American trial, few people attended it and most media ignored it.

“If the only source was Jones’ video, it might seem like a more inflammatory or popular act,” Ford said. “Perhaps that AFP story puts it in perspective better than if I hadn’t been there.”

Perhaps Musri places too much faith in the media’s power to set the agenda, and Ford places too much stock in the power of a single story to shape the narrative.

It took just one college student to defeat a media blackout and move a story halfway around the globe within 24 hours. And yet it took another 11 days and two dozen bodies for the story to return to the community where it happened.


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