Like a wayward boyfriend who just can't stop playing the field, mainstream media outlets often wind up begging the audience for forgiveness when a particularly savvy or lucky charlatan turns their chase for attention-seeking stories against them.
It's always a surreal process to watch as journalists who know better are sucked into covering issues and people they know they should ignore, usually by an odd combination of button-pushing provocation, thirst for the hot story of the day/week/month and boldface desire to stay relevant.
That's how we all wound up spending too much time talking about Terry Jones, the Gainesville, Fla.-based leader of a church one local newspaper editor says is closer to a cult, whose in-your-face anti-Islamic actions fit perfectly with narratives media outlets across the world wanted to exploit on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
American media outlets wanted an excuse to talk about rising anti-Islamic sentiment amid the contentious debate over the Park51 Islamic center and Mosque planned near Ground Zero in New York City. International news outlets wanted a visceral example of American intolerance and ignorance of other religions and cultures. And certain groups wanted "proof" that America really wants to eradicate Islam from the earth.
Last-minute decisions to ramp down coverage -- from the Associated Press vowing not to transmit photos of burning Korans to Fox News Channel refusing to cover anything on Saturday after talking about Jones all week -- felt a little like closing the barn door after the colt had escaped.
As I was assembling this story on how big media outlets lost control of the story for my newspaper's Saturday front page, I found few TV news organizations would even talk about the coverage issues Friday beyond carefully worded statements in press releases. What does that say about the news decisions involved?
Now that Jones has finally been unmasked as an eccentric provocateur opposed at times even by his own followers, it's time for a list of some things mainstream media outlets can do differently to avoid creating a circus like the one here, which pushed the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the President of the United States and the Pope into serving his agenda.
Hatemongers should never have their say without serious context: CNN anchor Rick Sanchez's July 29 interview with Jones, one of his first major TV appearances in connection with his Koran-burning threat, was a textbook example of how not to feature extremists in modern media. Sanchez's goals seemed noble -- let the guy talk and show any reasonable person he's wacko -- but such tactics rarely have the intended effect. Before someone like Jones speaks, many people who would conclude he's crazy already feel that way. And Sanchez seemed to be unaware of the many facts which would have put Jones in context -- including the small size of his church, his ouster from a church in Germany, his trouble with the IRS and allegations his group misused their tax-exempt status last year to help a for-profit business. Giving marginalized bigots access to mainstream television to spew their misguided thoughts mostly gives them the chance to reach like-minded individuals and look more mainstream than they really are.
Eliminate the crush of satellite trucks and helicopters by using one pool camera and reporter: This suggestion came to me from Norm Lewis, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville, after seeing how the media camped out around Jones' Dove World Outreach Church. Lewis recalled his work on a research project examining media coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings, in which he saw the crush of reporters and news crews in the event's aftermath as a secondary trauma for the victims that could have been avoided with a little media collaboration -- a lesson we can apply to Koran-burning religious zealots seeking media attention. "This is a guy (Jones) who has become drunk with his own sense of self-importance," said Lewis. "If he were to walk out his front door, and instead of seeing a phalanx of TV trucks and helicopters overhead, see one pool reporter and a camera, that might defuse the situation. Now, there's a sense he's got the world at his command. He's given 150 interviews and said the same thing every time. We can minimize harm, by using a press pool."
Big news outlets don't cover suicides or disclose the names of sexual assault victims. Why not add hate-mongering publicity-seekers to that list? Responsible news outlets make their decisions about coverage by balancing various values. On one side, you want to attract an audience, you want to cover news issues aggressively and you want to have an impact in the community. You also want to be journalistically fair, accurate and provide coverage which doesn't needlessly harm individuals or the community. Mainstream outlets don't routinely cover suicides, for example, because there is documented evidence that publicizing successful suicides can inspire copycats. Now that we know there are serious potential consequences to publicizing extremist anti-Islam bigots -- including riots in Middle Eastern countries where the population doesn't understand how marginalized people like Jones really are -- there's another journalism value that should kick in. I feel, at times, that some journalists think media critics are like nitpicky hall monitors -- insisting on unnecessary adherence to rules no one follows in the real world. But we learned last week why sticking to those rules can make sense, keeping irrational fame-seekers from hijacking the news process. So the next time someone like Jones announces a button-pushing protest, why don't big media outlets just say no?
Realize the new role of social media: This media circus wasn't totally built by social media, but it turns out the framework was laid there, as YouTube videos and a Facebook page centered on Jones' oddball stunt caused lots of online discussion before mainstream media outlets began paying attention. "Stories like this percolate in social media and then come to a boil when other mainstream media pick them up," said S. Robert Lichter from the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington D.C. think tank which tracked the evolution of Jones' story from terryjones-effigy.jpga furor among bloggers and social media outlets to the full-on media circus it later became. "It's hard for the media to keep something like this out, because the media are everywhere. The media are us. It takes just one match to light the woodpile that you build on the web."
Be aware of the international implications: Just as Jones' stunt fit several sensational stories American news outlets wanted to explore, he fit international memes about prejudiced and culturally ignorant Americans. And in countries where the government exercises much more control over public displays, it may have been hard for people to understand why our president allowed Jones the freedom to do anything. In that context, perhaps giving an irrational marginalized provocateur access to national news outlets might have consequences beyond the obvious.
In the end, this story is a cautionary tale about the impact of modern media's growing argument culture, need for news items 24/7 and rush to feature people at the heart of controversies without fully vetting them.
The only question left now: Will we react any differently when the next Terry Jones comes along?
See my other observations about media, politics and society at my own blog, The Feed, by clicking here.