The painful costs of media restraint

It’s possible to suffer pain from an injury that you can’t see. The limb that hurts was amputated, and you look for the wound but there’s nothing there. You’re left with an effect without an apparent cause.

Medicine calls it phantom pain, and it’s something like what happened early this month when we got news about spasms of civil violence in Afghanistan. The murderous rioting, it turns out, had been triggered by that fundamentalist pastor in Florida. He finally did what he had threatened to do in September and set a copy of the Koran ablaze.

He did what? The first we heard that the Gainesville preacher, Terry Jones, had carried out his threat was when the media were full of reports that dozens of people had died in riots protesting it.

Only then did the media mention that on March 20, in the presence of his micro-congregation of 30 or so in the Dove World Outreach Center, the reverend had convicted the Muslim holy book, condemned it to death and, having soaked it in kerosene, had an underling set it on fire with a barbecue lighter.

So we learned about the cause only after suffering the effects.

That media silence was quite a contrast to the drama last fall. In September, with the anniversary of 9/11 approaching, the plan by the unknown leader of an unknown nano-church was all over the news. Editorialists noodled the limits of free speech, global impact was weighed, clerics implored restraint, and President Obama appealed to Jones, who said he wouldn’t, then said he might.

He didn’t, and everybody went back to business.

When the book finally burned, almost nobody knew. Agence France Presse, whose correspondent in Gainesville, Andrew Ford, had covered the September controversy, wrote a small item just after midnight on March 21. Later that morning the AFP report was mentioned by the Religion News Service, and used that day by a religion news blogger with USA Today. According to a thorough post mortem by the Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers, that was pretty much that.

New York Times blogger Robert Mackey later suggested: “…American news outlets decided not to report the Koran burning because of a concern that treating every word and action of a man with just 30 followers would give a distorted impression of his importance in the United States, a country of more than [300] million people.”

Elsewhere, though, the matter picked up steam anyway. Jones’ congregants posted video on the Internet, and soon footage was on TV in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan’s president condemned Jones before the country’s parliament. A U.S. State Department spokesman apologized on Pakistani TV.

By March 24, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had issued a statement deploring the burning as a “crime against a religion and entire Muslim umma [community],” and on March 31, Karzai gave a speech demanding that Jones be arrested. The next day the Afghan violence began.

Did the U.S. media do wrong? Obviously, there’s nothing inherently newsworthy about a publicity stunt cooked up by a nobody whose followers couldn’t fill a fifth-grade classroom. Should he be covered because he’s offensive? Hey, on a given Saturday night, this country’s bars (and fraternity houses) are stuffed with half-wits eager to give offense. They’re not news.

But what about the consequences of ignoring him? Suddenly, in ignorance, we had the spectacle of vicious anti-U.S. rage in a sensitive region, with protests egged on by leaders this country trusts. And we had no warning.

So our media failed in a key responsibility: To keep us informed about things that may matter.

Sure, it’s commendable that the U.S. media tried to avoid paying undue attention to this guy. I certainly believed that the September coverage had given him a public stature that he did not deserve, and helped turn his boasts into an international crisis.

But what good did ignoring him do? For all anybody knows, greater attention to the burning might have unleashed the sort of broad condemnation that might have defused the protests.

Clearly, the established media do not have the power to suppress information of this kind. The fight can’t be over mere facts—the book, after all, was burned–but over what to make of them.

And trying to smother distasteful facts can keep that larger fight, the fight over meanings, from being waged effectively.

We need to remember that, with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 only a few months away and the curtain sure to rise on a whole season of anti-Islamic theatrics.

Edward Wasserman is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. This column was originally published on April 12, 2011 on “Ed Wasserman’s Blog.”

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