Friday, 10 September 2010

What makes news news?

When a nutter of a fundamentalist Christian minister, who preaches to a congregation of 50 people on a Sunday at the Dove World Outreach Centre in downtown Gainesville, USA, can suddenly become a major news story around the world, you have to wonder how and why the media decides to make an idiot statement news. Mad people say stupid things, and perform stupid actions like burning religious books, every day. Most people in most countries never hear about them because they never get reported. So how come this incident has reached then point where the President of the United States has had to plead for pastor Terry Jones not to go ahead with his Koran book burning?
Howard Kurtz, writing in the Washington Post this week tried to explain.

But how did we get to this point? The first national report I found was carried by Religion News Service on July 21. On Aug. 26, the New York Times reported that Jones planned a bonfire of Korans because, he said, it is "full of lies." The story ran on Page 14. Not much happened.
But the story continued to bubble. On Monday, ABC's "Good Morning America" and "World News" aired pieces on the controversy. On Tuesday, David Petraeus said in a statement the Gainesville stunt could endanger American troops. That lit the fuse. The story exploded, especially on cable.
A brief reminder of the stakes. In 2005, Newsweek reported in a "Periscope" item that American interrogators at Gitmo had flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. There were riots in Afghanistan and other countries that killed 15 people, and the magazine later apologized for what it said was an inaccurate report.
On "NBC Nightly News" last night, Petraeus said: "Our concern, Brian, is that such an act would jeopardize the safety of our soldiers and our civilians, even of our Afghan partners because it's the police and soldiers of the Afghan forces who would have to confront the kind of demonstrations that we're afraid would erupt in the wake of such an action."
Fair enough; the question had to be asked. But should MSNBC have provided live coverage of Jones's rambling remarks at his church yesterday afternoon?
And how mainstream is Jones's Dove World Outreach Center? Last year the church posted a sign saying "ISLAM IS OF THE DEVIL." Now its tax-exempt status is in jeopardy for posting a sign this year, attacking a gay mayoral candidate: "No homo Mayor."
Why does the world need to follow the antics of one obscure book-burner in Florida? You can say we're just covering the story, but our combined megaphone has made it into an international story. And this isn't like over-covering Lindsay Lohan's jail sentence. This is a tinderbox right now.
 Perhaps Charles Homans, an editor at the Washington Monthly,  gives the correct perspective with these comments:
I think that TV airtime is such a non-scarce commodity at this point that it doesn't really matter what you do. You can't dominate an atomized discourse--people predisposed to crackpotism will find it whether or not one more reasonable person is on TV. The only people who matter are the producers and executives who have the ability to deprive these stories of oxygen and don't.
It's times like this that I wish more news outlets behaved like Fox and Drudge. They seem to be the only ones who remember the basic existential reality of the media, that the news isn't some sort of uncontrollable natural force but something that is determined by individual sentient beings declaring an event to be important or unimportant.
 And if you have any doubt that the media has elevated a madman to a position of international influence, have a read of the recent De Spiegel on-line article giving some of the evangelical history of Terry Jones when he peddled his religious nonsense in Germany.
In the United States, Jones has already attracted attention on several occasions as an Islamophobic provocateur. What is less well known is that the pastor led a charismatic evangelical church, the Christian Community of Cologne, in the western German city up until 2009. Last year, however, the members of the congregation kicked founder Jones out, because of his radicalism. One of the church's current leaders, Stephan Baar, also told the German news agency DPA that there had been suspicions of financial irregularities in the church surrounding Jones.
A "climate of fear and control" had previously prevailed in the congregation, says one former member of the church who does not want to be named. Instead of free expression, "blind obedience" was demanded, he says.
Various witnesses gave SPIEGEL ONLINE consistent accounts of the Jones' behavior. The pastor and his wife apparently regarded themselves as having been appointed by God, meaning opposition was a crime against the Lord. Terry and Sylvia Jones allegedly used these methods to ask for money in an increasingly insistent manner, as well as making members of the congregation carry out work.
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