Sometimes the duty of the free press is to not report.

The on again, off again Koran burning planned by a small time evangelical preacher in Gainsville Florida has received world wide coverage and raised serious concern among the US military and foreign policy elite that it will cause a murderous reaction against US citizens living and fighting in the Muslim world. The issues has dominated the news in the US for days (I am currently located about 120 miles southeast of Gainsville), played out in a perverse media tag team with the so-called 9-11 mosque controversy. Official concern is so great that President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and ISAF commander General David Petreus have denounced the planned pyrotechnics, while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a personal call to the preacher to ask him to cease and desist.

So far, the preacher has said that he will stop the burnings only if the 9-11 mosque supporters agree to move it someplace else. Which means that on top of the provocation and outrage he intends, he has now added blackmail.

Fueled by right wing media led by Fox News TV and Radio outlets, the issue has been debated on a free speech grounds. It is generally accepted that the wacked out preacher has a right to burn Korans, but division is over whether he has a responsibility to not do so given the larger consequences of his actions. Some officials have tried to find a way to stop him using hate speech legislation, saying that his obvious intent is to spread hatred towards all Muslims and the faith itself, something that is not protected by the first amendment. Others have responded that he should be allowed to do as he please and that the US should not kow-tow to “terrorists” just because Muslims react hysterically to the desecration of the holy book or images of the prophet.

I shall leave aside the obvious greater harm argument that clearly demonstrates why the Koran burning is a bad idea. I shall also avoid addressing the fact that Islam is not the only religion where its adherents respond violently to perceived insults to their faith. I will leave aside the argued to death free speech aspects of the case. Instead, I will address two aspects of this affair that appear to be underplayed.

The first issue is a matter of perception of the event in the Muslim world. Like it or not, most people living in Muslim nations cannot fathom the concept of a separation of church and state, or that the US government and local authorities do not have the power to just physically stop the preacher from holding the event. That is because most live in authoritarian states where religion and politics are deeply intertwined and governments regularly intervene in matters of religion (to include prohibitions on certain types of religious activity, regulations on marriage, etc.).  As a result, most citizens in the Muslim world cannot conceive of  such an event being carried out without government approval, so see it as an officially sanctioned statement of how the US views Islam. That may be ignorant or confused on the facts, but it is the reality of the context in which the Koran burning is perceived in the Muslim world. (Note to those who may take offense: this is a comment about the deeply ingrained authoritarian nature of power structures in the Muslim world rather than about the content of its faith, and refers not to the educated classes but to the broader mass of people who do not have access to the facilities and vehicles that would allow them to make discerning judgements on international issues. The same can be said about other political cultures as well).

The second issue is the reckless role of the US press. The preacher in question leads a 50 person fringe fundamentalist congregation that has in the past protested against gays and threatened to torch a copy of the Torah (since he believes that Judaism is also a “dirty” religion). He clearly has delusions of grandeur, if not being a few cans short of a six pack. The national press paid no mind to his previous antics, so why is it doing so now? Why not just ignore him? Why is this event considered front page news when his other antics were not?  In sum: why give this nutbar oxygen?

Given the sensitivities at play, the national press could have buried the story in the “odd news” section or not covered it at all given its marginal nature. To their credit, outlets like the NYT and WP have limited their coverage to the reactions and not played the story on the front pages of their respective publications. But, led by Fox and a network of Christian radio and TV outlets, the US press has covered the Gainsville Goober as if he were Sarah Palin’s running mate.

That is where they fail their obligations to the public. As with any democratic entity, the press has responsibilities along with rights. Those responsibilities include not inflaming or otherwise causing small events to bocome international incidents that have the potential to cause great harm to US interests and its citizens. It has an obligation not to stoke the fires of religious and ethnic hatred. And yet the right-wing media in the US has done exactly that, aided and abetted by conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich who see political gain being made off of the scapegoating of Muslims and (with regards to immigration and future demographics) Hispanics.

This helps explain why the tone of public debate in the US has become so vulgarised and debased. There is a large element of the press that has become “Murdochised,” (sic), that is, it will report on anything that can cause scandal, outrage and division in the interest of profit and political advantage. It has eschewed its responsibilites to the larger public interest in the pursuit of partisan gain. It is, in other words, unworthy of the constitutional guarantees under which it cloaks its behaviour.

All of which is to say that if there is a nasty fallout from this stunt, whatever blood is spilled is not only on the hands of the religious provocateur and his small band of intolerant followers, but also on the hands of their media and political facilitators who turned a backwoods hoe down into an international incident.

12 thoughts on “Sometimes the duty of the free press is to not report.

  1. Perhaps the only thing this pastor could do to better secure his own assassination would be to draw Muhammad on the cover, publish the pictures on the internet, and then burn it. In contrast, I suppose there’s no inherent risk of backlash against the media this time around, and well, a story is a story.

    At what point do we include the blogosphere as ‘the media’, and as having the responsibilities which you outline (the first part, the latter should be obvious)?

  2. Like it or not, most people living in Muslim nations cannot fathom the concept of a separation of church and state, or that the US government and local authorities do not have the power to just physically stop the preacher from holding the event.

    This is absolutely correct. And it’s true not just of ordinary people with little experience of the West, but people who should know better. I was living in a Muslim country when the Danish cartoons controversy blew up, and we had no less than a Member of Parliament saying that this was clearly a calculated insult by the Danish govt, as it had taken no steps to prevent publication. For this MP, it was self-explanatory that the govt can simply instruct a newspaper editor not to publish something (on the basis that he won’t want a trip to the Police station where he’ll have a series of terrible and unlikely accidents in the cells). If members of govts in these countries have no concept of the restrictions on govt power in the West, we needn’t expect the general populace to have figured it out.

  3. QUOTE: the press has responsibilities along with rights. Those responsibilities include not inflaming or otherwise causing small events to become international incidents that have the potential to cause great harm to US interests and its citizens. It has an obligation not to stoke the fires of religious and ethnic hatred. END QUOTE

    This is the core of the problem with BOTH the print or Internet news media. You are right in saying that the inflammation is worsting a pathetic,sorry arse attempt to gain traction for a grandiose idea. I am a Christian, have a degree in Journalism but am not working the industry – for that very reason- bottom lines in corporate owned media outlets are not always responsible. On the point of my leanings I am left of centre Christian wise and politically. The pastor in Gainsville is so warped it’s just not even funny. For one very important reason: Jesus came to forgive and redeem not antagonize. It is a responsibility to do just that. The pastor is not even close on that note. Second, your accurate comment about the Muslim world is the other core issue and it is most unfortunate to say that this is a rather huge problem in the US as it is elsewhere, of prejudice that is quite harsh and unforgiving. Even politically. I have read a number of books in the last year for my Post Graduate Diploma Political Science and have found evidence of it in history. Particularly my readings of the 20th century.

    I admire Americans, would like to say that the official attempts to ask for the pastor not to carry out his actions the right thing to do. But I do not agree with the media handling of this issue- it has shown itself a rather dangerous player of peoples lives.

  4. It’s complicated, because some would say that along with the duty to not report the marginal, one would also argue that their is a duty to condemn the clearly condemnable. Sometimes when terrible things happen and the press is silent, they’re criticised for that. The burning Torahs is an excellent example – if Terry Jones were doing that, and the media kept it quiet, there would be many saying they’re failing to do their duty as part of a democratic society but for an entirely different reason.

    You’re right, Pablo, that those who live in societies where the media isn’t outside government control often have difficulty believing that other countries aren’t the same as them. They are, of course, partly right – we’ve seen in the US, UK and NZ that the media is never totally outside the government’s ability to control, and it can be hard to appreciate the subleties of the situation from outside. But I think more tellingly, so many of the countries that suffer from a lack of media freedom have fine-sounding homilies about media freedom and lack of censorship in their constitutions and statute books. This means that when representations of less censorious countries protest about the freedom their media enjoys (and maybe, abuses) people from the less free countries often assume that such guarantees are always as useless as the ones their own media theoretically “enjoys”.

    Ultimately though the media cannot be considered wholly responsible for this, unlike the Mohammed cartoons situation, because they are not the ones burning the korans.

  5. Hugh: Touche!!! You have pointed a ethical dilemma that journalists have to face

    QUOTE:Sometimes when terrible things happen and the press is silent, they’re criticized for that. The burning Torahs is an excellent example – if Terry Jones were doing that, and the media kept it quiet, there would be many saying they’re failing to do their duty as part of a democratic society but for an entirely different reason. END QUOTE

    BUT, they [the Media] are the ones burning the Koran. An excellent move by Jones: to exploit, to gain and to have a serious debate in America is what he is getting for his own advantage.

    This is sooooo not over. I predict he will make this mess even more dangerous verbally!

  6. thanx for the post pablo & i agree with your sentiments re the media publicity given to this pastor. on the other hand, i believe more publicity needs to be given to incidents like this:

    The Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI) today said it has called on the FBI to launch a hate crime investigation of a burned copy of the Quran, Islam’s holy text, found early yesterday at a mosque in that state.

    CAIR-MI reports that officials of the Islamic Center of East Lansing say vandals left a burned Quran at the front entrance of the mosque and threw pages from holy text in the streets surrounding center. Torn pages of the Quran appeared to be smeared with feces. An unidentified substance was also found on the floor in front of the mosque’s main door. CAIR-MI has contacted the FBI about the incident.

    “The perpetrators of this unconscionable act of religious intimidation must be apprehended and prosecuted to the full extent of state and federal law,” said CAIR-MI Executive Director Dawud Walid.

    Yesterday CAIR called for federal hate crime charges to be brought against three men who allegedly painted a racist slur on a mosque in New York.Authorities say the men painted the slur “sand n**gers” and an obscenity on the back wall of the Hudson Islamic Center just after midnight Wednesday. They have been charged with aggravated harassment, conspiracy, making graffiti, and criminal mischief.

    i just wonder how much is enough for these people & where it will all end. this is not a freedom of speech issue. these are deliberate acts of hate designed to intimidate, denigrate & harass a community. i’m feeling a little too sick inside to say any more just now.

  7. stargazer:

    I agree that the incidents mentioned above are hate crimes and the feds need to track down and charge those responsible. the same goes for the torching of construction equipment at a mosque building site outside of Memphis. The mad preacher burning Korans on his own church property would have proven to be a more tricky case to prosecute under federal and state hate crimes legislation, although the point is now moot since he backed down under pressure. Interestingly, the Sunday talk shows are full of arguments about why the press covered the story in the way it did, so at least I am not alone in thinking that something was off in that regard.

    One good thing that appears to be emerging from these controversies is a more focused public debate on the nature and role of Islam in the US, within a context of constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and toleration of diversity. We shall see if it improves popular understanding in the US of what Islam is and is not.

  8. I’m with Hugh on this one. I think framing the imperative for the media to forbear as ‘duty’ is problematic. I think the teabag media in this case were wrong to beat the story up, but don’t agree they had a duty to ignore it: that would have been disloyal to their audience base and core principles. Which only goes to emphasise how far removed they are from their stated principles: those enshrined in the Constitution &c. That being so, while the whole affair might be stupid and wrong in the international/trans-cultural context, it is an important internal debate within American and wider liberal-democratic culture. If it needs to be had, then the media have a duty to facilitate it.

    I generally hold the view that the media only has a duty of forbearance where three tests are met: omitting or suppressing information can prevent or mitigate against a significant and immediate catastrophe; that any collateral or incidental effects of the suppression have lesser impacts than the original catastrophe might have had; and (most crucially) that the information would not escape by any other means (and even then, only on the condition that the extent and reasoning behind the suppression is made clear in good time).

    Regrettably, the Quran-burning episode fails on the first and third of these tests. Since the cat was out of the bag as a consequence of the teabag media, it’s crucial that more responsible media don’t permit them to dominate the agenda.


  9. On reflection, it occurs to me that there’s a parallel between this issue and the graphic reporting of Clayton Weatherston’s testimony at his trial. At the time there was very strong criticism of the media focus on his specific words, attitudes and perspective which, it was argued, were disrespectful to the memory and surviving relatives of Sophie Elliot, not to mention victims of violent crime more generally. But I think these views, while well-intentioned, were misguided. The excessive focus on those awful details, and particularly on the maniacal hubris of Westerston himself, were crucial to building the public outcry against Weatherston and indeed against the provocation defence which was later repealed. The media, far from exploiting Sophie’s memory for ghouish motives, helped ensure that such spectacles would be much more rare in the future.

    So it could be with the Quran-burning case: by addressing the topic and actually having the public discussion about it, American — and wider liberal — society may decide to repudiate such hatred, or at least to mark its purveyors out as being on the margins of that society. Whether it actually will or not is a different matter.


  10. The more I think about it, the more I think that, if only we had a way to condemn something without drawing attention to it, we would really be on to something.

  11. Lew:

    I was wondering how long it would take for you to jump in, and am glad that you have as you have a better handle on media issues than I do (and BTW, thanks for posting in spite of the demands on your time–I was getting a touch of bloggers fatigue).

    Having said that, I believe that forbearance on the Koran burning story would have satisfied your criteria numbers 1 and 2, to wit, that it would prevent a greater harm (something that I mentioned in the post but said I would not discuss because of its obvious nature), and the incidental fallout from the suppression of the news would be less than the consequences of its broad dissemination.

    To elaborate on what I did not say in the post,the harm done to the US reputation and the increased danger to US citizens living in the Muslim world clearly mitigated against dissemination of the story, if for no other reason that as a national security concern.

    As for criteria number 3, there is little doubt that other media, including blogs, would have covered the issue but it is not clear that these outlets would have been picked up by the mainstream (often government controlled) press in Muslim nations like the way that it was. So I still believe that silence was the better media option on this one.

    However one might come down on the issue, it is also clear, from my Florida vantage point, that this story and the “9-11 mosque” story have prompted a major public debate on Islam and (and in) the US. In that regard the mainstream (non-Fox) press have been very good to lead the coverage of the follow up to the controversies, which has been illuminating indeed.

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