Agence France Presse

Agence France Presse

A week after a Gainesville pastor of a tiny flock held the world hostage, can we learn any lessons about journalism?

The NPR program On the Media offered excellent insight into the role of media, including the fact that the story gained ground internationally before it exploded in the United States.

Even in terms of domestic coverage, the hometown Gainesville Sun was hesitant to fan the flames of the pastor’s outrage. I first learned about the planned Quran burning from this post in Christianity Today (apparently a response to a July 21 Religion News Service story), long before the Sun wrote about it.

Moreover, the pastor and his questionable tactics weren’t news to Sun readers, because it wrote extensively about the church and its “Islam is of the Devil” crusade a year earlier. In fact, the Sun’s well-done retrospective story over the weekend was about half background from material it had previously reported.

Michael Calderone, who recently moved from Politico to Yahoo, traced the story’s elevation to a CNN interview, which gave it national stature. Still, the story didn’t reallly catch fire until generals and political leaders made pronouncements.

Because of those responses, journalists tend to believe that stories like this one just happen. Sure, they say, it’s lamentable that an unaccredited pastor with a flock of 50 could command the world stage merely by threatening a barbaric act. But they shrug their collective shoulders and protest that events have overtaken their ability to control them.

Readers and viewers are just as sure that obscure figures promoting hatred can command the world stage only if journalists hand it to them. The media help create Lady Gaga, balloon boy and inflammatory preachers. The media can just as easily deflate them.

Is there a way around that logjam? A previous post in this blog suggested that journalists should use a press pool to cover the story while presenting a battery of microphones to a publicity hound.

Yes, some stories take on a life of their own. But this story resulted in several deaths. When life is at stake, the story comes second.


The story has changed. It’s time to change how the story is covered.

Last night, the fringe Gainesville pastor appeared to be persuaded by a personal phone call from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to call off his Quran burning. Now, he appears to be back on. He says he will call off his burning only if the “Ground Zero mosque” (that’s a misnomer; it’s a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan) is moved.

If this pastor was really the Christian he claims to be, he would know that Jesus (render to Caesar) and Paul (everyone must submit to governing authorities) speak clearly. He is disobeying a direct request of the president of the United States delivered through Gates and he doesn’t have a local burning permit. He is disobeying biblical commands to obey earthly authority.

Rather, his determination to orchestrate events in New York shows his true colors. He’s not listening to God. He doesn’t just want a publicity stunt. He’s drunk with power.

Poynter Institute Kelly McBride has composed a nice essay offering advice to journalists. Her first suggestion is the most important: Don’t go. Giving this guy a battery of microphones only makes things worse.

Let’s back away. Send the satellite trucks home. Reduce journalists parked outside this small church to a couple of pool reporters. Exert the minimum effort necessary to cover the story. Pledge to put away the cameras if he lights a match.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics urges journalists to report the truth while minimizing harm. We’ve done the former. But now we’re contributing to the latter.

Unmasked for the power-mad figure he perhaps always was, the Gainesville minister at the center of this storm has changed the story. It’s time to change how journalists cover him.

I went to church today to join in the brotherhood and sisterhood of man. Maybe I also went to repent.

The church we attend, Holy Trinity Episcopal, hosted an interfaith service at noon today. It was packed. We all knew why we were there: the announced plan by a small Gainesville congregation to burn the Quran on Sept. 11.

But that’s not the only reason. We were there because this group of 50 people has generated worldwide coverage. Everyone seems to know about this planned event because journalists have covered the daylights out of it. In turn, generals, presidents and the pope have pleaded with the misguided pastor to rethink his illegal (he lacks a burning permit) scheme.

I saw the satellite television trucks parked outside the church and cringed. Has my profession — have I — some culpability for creating this Quran burning spectacle?

News, by definition, is the unusual as opposed to the routine. We don’t report about people who live in harmony with other faiths because that’s normal. We do report on the fringe guy who thinks that purposely antagonizing others is Biblical.

Moreover, in this modern era, journalists aren’t gatekeepers. This thing went viral thanks to the Internet. It was going to happen anyway.

And yet the guilt remains.

So I sang lustily the patriotic songs chosen. I listened respectfully to prayers and scriptures from the world’s three great monotheistic faiths.

And I choked up when starting to sing, “Let There Be Peace on Earth — and Let It Begin With Me.” I am, after all, my brother’s keeper.

Coverage of a planned Quran burning in Gainesville and public opposition to an Islamic community center two blocks from Ground Zero offer evidence of liberty media.

No, that’s not a typo. This is not about the amorphous phrase “liberal media” but about how journalists embrace the liberties granted by the First Amendment.

The First Amendment guarantees five freedoms (Quick: Can you name all five?), including a free press and freedom of religion. We believe in the latter like we belive in the former.

Today’s Gainesville Sun has a story about a gathering Thursday of 20 religious leaders in Gainesville representing three faiths and united in their opposition to the planned Quran burning. Reporter Chad Smith, a former student who has done a terrific job covering this issue, took note of what was said and what wasn’t said by those leaders, including the “increasingly virulent discussion about Islam in this country.”

Today’s New York Times reports that a majority of oh-so-liberal New Yorkers join their counterparts across the country in opposing an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan.

The story included a quote from a Brooklyn woman who agreed with her granddaughter about religious liberty in principle but not in this case.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? We agree with liberty as an ideal but retreat when fears overwhelm us. And today, much of America fears Islam as the boogeyman.

Journalists, who depend on the First Amendment for their very existence, know that freedoms aren’t freedoms if they are subject to popular whim. So we side with liberty, even when that makes us unpopular.

Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are living ironies: media personalities who claim to be abused by the very media that give them breath.

Beck, who held an evangelistic pep rally in Washington on Saturday, said he chose the date not because it coincided with an anniversary of  Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but because that was when headliner Palin was available.

No dummy, Beck. He knew that Palin, who is famous for being famous, would attract not just crowds, but coverage. He knew he could use his media platform on Fox News to promote his gig while claiming to be a victim of the media.

Beck first claimed he didn’t know the significance of the Aug. 28 date, then asserted that he inherited King’s civil rights mantle. But Beck, who scribbles frenetically on a blackboard on his media platform while purporting to unveil hidden historical truths, apparently doesn’t know that King was deeply concerned about economic injustice. Maybe he needs to read up on the Poor People’s March.

Palin can be just as ignorant of history. She often tells Tea Party audiences that she wants to return the nation to its constitutional roots as the founders intended. Well, the founders intended that slavery be legal and women be quiet. Were the country to return to Palin’s vision, she would have to turn in her voter registration card.

Although the Beck-Palin distortion of history is lamentable, their hypocrisy regarding their lofty stature on an elite media platform is nonsensical. Without the media for which they work, they wouldn’t have a voice. Without coverage by the “lamestream” media they mock, their voices would echo across an empty wasteland.

Despite their claims to the contrary, they are media creatures.

The inaccuracy inherent in “ground-zero mosque” relfects a fundamental problem with any headline, and the elusive nature of truth.

The phrase is inaccurate. It’s a community center, not a mosque, and it would be located two blocks away from ground zero.

Some journalists have called it a “ground-zero mosque” because those three words, as my fellow editing professor Dr. Ron Rodgers would say, are “dense with information.”

A better headline would start with “Muslim community center near ground zero.” But headlines are usually only five or six words, and we’ve already used six words, before getting to the rest of the headline, starting with a verb.

Several people have blamed journalists for perpetuating misunderstandings about the proposed center. Point taken.

However, the journalistic shorthand is not the issue here.

For those who don’t want to see an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, “near” isn’t OK, either. Opponents have failed to articulate just how far away the center has to be (midtown? Queens? Iowa?) because they don’t want it, period.

Even when confronted with the reality that two small mosques exist now within 12 blocks of ground zero, many opponents insist nothing more should be built.

While I understand how some Americans feel that way, I don’t share the sentiment. I want American Muslims to have the same freedom to worship that I do. And I will not blame an entire faith for the actions of 19 people, any more than I will blame Christianity for the Ku Klux Klan.

That said, those who oppose an Islamic center anywhere near ground zero are not swayed by adding the word “near.” This is not a matter of headline imprecision, but a disagreement over the meaning of religious liberty.

My eyes and my heart were drawn to a front-page story about college students and their parents in today’s New York Times. However, my journalistic brain got mad.

The story says that colleges are increasingly trying to get “Velcro parents” (a new term to me) to “back off so students can develop independence.” As the parent of twins who started college today, I can relate to parental curiosity about how their offspring are adjusting and the emotional upheaval of the empty nest.

Then I read more closely.

The story cites two colleges that have formal ceremonies marking separation between parent and child. Morehouse College (enrollment: 2,689) has a “parting ceremony.” Grinnell College (enrollment: 1,688) tells parents they must leave at a certain time. The story also quotes a Colgate University (enrollment: 2,837) official who “plans to drop” hints that parents should leave.

That’s it. Two, maybe three, smaller schools.

The story also mentions that the University of Minnesota has a reception for parents while students meet roommates, but that’s hardly an indication of separation anxiety.

Otherwise, the story relies on atypical anecodotes, or the the weird-parent stories that administrators tell. Every profession has them. Cops tell about the stupid crook who left his ID at the scene of the crime. Customer service folks tell about the caller who wondered why his computer wouldn’t work when the electricity was out. Disney guides tell about park-goers who ask when the 3 p.m. parade will come by.

Such stories make for good copy. But the unusual is not the ordinary. The Times story cited “for evidence” a single posting on a website by a parent asking if he or she should stick around after dropping off a child. A single post is not “evidence.”

Trend stories require more evidence than two or three examples and outlandish examples.