Now that the initial furor has died down, much of the media is quickly coming to a consensus that the debate over building a Muslim community and prayer center two blocks from Ground Zero was overblown. It is/was part of a "summer of fear," a "ginned up rage," or "a frenzy over a story that doesn't really exist." Media hand-wringing and navel-gazing often follow the hysteria of an over-covered story in an effort to downplay and dismiss the media's own coverage. After all, the media, loves to cover nothing more than, well, itself (ahem, hence Mediaite).
But was this story really the equivalent of summer sharks, missing girls and frightening weather? Is the media to ignore or diminish a story where 70 percent of the public and 63 percent of New Yorkers oppose building the center in that location? Surely many will blame the media coverage itself for those numbers, and it is true that like any story that receives a lot of media attention, public awareness of the "Ground Zero Mosque" has had an impact on the "Ground Zero Mosque" story. (It's also true that few complained when the project was first announced many months ago.)
But the fact that most didn't know about it doesn't mean they wouldn't have cared if they did. The ultimate question is whether this was/is a legitimate story ripe for significant media coverage, or just a political and xenophobic ploy disguised as a news debate. Sure, some have hidden behind the "debate" to encourage islamophobia, and most of them have been appropriately called out by their political opponents in the opinion media time and again. Amongst the mainstream media, however, the pendulum is now swinging too far in the other direction, as many run for cover from a story that not only deserved coverage, but the media was really obligated to cover, if the standards for judging news have not been altered for this story.
So then I must be part of the "move the mosque" crowd? I mean, how could I believe the extensive coverage is appropriate if I also think the Cordoba Initiative should be permitted to move forward in that spot? Well, just because I happen to support any religion's right to build a facility two blocks from Ground Zero, just because I do not equate radical Islamists with the peaceful Islamic religion, just because I think it would be unconstitutional to try to impede it, does not mean this is not a legitimate story worthy of debate.
To the chagrin of many, the media gravitates towards controversy. It is in their (our) DNA. Whether anyone or everyone likes it or not, it is what they do. It's why politics and sports, mystery and mayhem dominate coverage. This story includes the ultimate elixir for media coverage: emotion, politics, terrorism, religion and bias. Some will say that the existence of those elements alone shouldn't mean that the media must play into the hands of those appealing to biases and the most base of human instincts. True, so then what makes this controversy deserving of days and days of saturated media coverage? Who knows how much coverage is appropriate, but it's obvious that when terrorists attack the U.S., sensitivities will be high to anything large built in that area a year after the fact or even almost ten years later. The area around Ground Zero is news because it's Ground Zero. Period. Building a center two blocks away that supports the very cause that the terrorists claimed (at least by name) was their calling increases its news value exponentially. It doesn't validate the terrorists' warped view of Islam, but, like it or not, in this day and age, it makes it news. Simply dismissing the entire controversy as a non-story is to presume that no one should question the prudence of building the facility at that location. That is also to take a side in the debate.
Consider another hypothetical example. A radical group of extremist Jews who claim to be angry about Turkey's role in the Gaza boat fiasco bring down the Sapphire Tower, a brand new modern high rise in the heart of the Istanbul financial district. Turkey has long been lauded by the international community for welcoming different religions and is considered a beacon of multiculturalism. The Israeli government and all major Jewish groups immediately condemn the attack in the harshest terms.
The rebuilding effort takes years, and in the meantime, a mainstream Jewish group proposes building a Jewish cultural center and synagogue two blocks from the location of the downed skyscraper. Of course there would be complaints, some based on antisemitism, others based on the sensitivity of the location. But even if you disagree with them, would we question whether it is a legitimate story worthy of extensive debate on the news stations, websites and newspapers of the region? Would we minimize those questions by constantly referring to the summer news doldrums? Like in this case, I would personally think those questions founded in a misunderstanding of the Jewish faith and the unfortunate conflation of Jews and radicals, but I would still recognize and appreciate why the local media was covering the story. A lot.
Should we question how some have covered this story here? Of course. Should we critique those who have nakedly tried to milk it for political gain or not so nakedly appealed to prejudice? You bet. But for members of the media to scapegoat their brethren as a whole for focusing on this is to become blinded by their own political biases. Everyone would like to see a Utopian media where only the most "important" stories of the day are covered, but until that happens, lets admit that singling out this one for particular scorn is to either highlight the author's take on who is right, or to usher in a completely new standard for judging what is news.
This post originally appeared on Mediaite.