Sunday, 12 September 2010

9/11 Controversy and news coverage

"Is the Terry Jones who's going to burn the Koran the one from Monty Python? Because if so he's a very naughty boy." tweet by David Schneider last week. When I read this and various more sick jokes that were floating around online, it did make me think about how the threats of an eccentric bigot from a little known sect had gathered such momentum to become a major talking point.

A few weeks ago, no-one had ever heard of Pastor Terry Jones from the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, yet towards the end of last week as the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America approached, he became the top story on TV, Radio and online (though not in the English tabloids, where it was still Wayne Rooney). Listening to radio coverage on Friday, the day before the anniversary, I noticed that the emphasis was starting to shift to commentators asking the same question. How did this get so out of hand that someone whose views should have very little credibility and who represents a group of people that you could fit onto a bus, is being pleaded with by the President of the USA and the UN Secretary General and invited onto every US network to speak live to the nation? And can this story tell us anything about the way news is distributed in the current media landscape?

A bit of background. Jones' church has apparently existed for about a quarter of a century, like many 'born again' sects in the USA, not picking up many members. He has campaigned against Islam and homosexuality for quite some while, and recently published a book called 'Islam is of the Devil'. For the past few months, his youtube channel has featured videos attacking Islam and in July he announced 'International Burn a Koran Day'. In mid-July he began to put out messages on twitter, accusing Islam of being like fascism and announcing "9/11/2010 International Burn a Koran Day."

He started a Facebook group and picked up several hundred 'fans' and by the end of the month some anti-Jones facebook groups had started up. The mainstream media started picking up the story and on 29 July he did this interview on CNN, which was circulated internationally.

Given the huge amount of video contributions on youtube and the range of eccentric minority interest websites around, this would still have little significance, but as is often the case in our media-saturated world, news channels are desperate for material to fill airtime and Jones began to be featured by a range of media outlets. By the beginning of September, this mixture of his use of social media (youtube, twitter, facebook) and opposition to his ideas popping up online led to an absolute scramble to speak to him.

The combination of the annual remembrance of 9/11, which always gets some media coverage, stories about an Islamic cultural centre to be built in New York and the continuing presence of US troops in Afghanistan contributed to Jones' views being given prominence. Though the fire department in the town of Gainesville, where the 'church' is based refused to grant a permit to hold a bonfire, the media effectively 'fanned the flames' before they were lit in giving him such coverage.

The cultural centre had been the subject of scare stories whipped up by some right wing bloggers earlier in the year so that many people believed it was a mosque to be built 'on the graves of those who died on Ground Zero', whereas it was actually some streets away and includes includes 'a theatre, performing arts centre, fitness centre, swimming pool, basketball court, childcare area, bookstore, culinary school, art studio, food court, September 11 memorial, and prayer space'. This of course in the most multicultural city on the planet, so really ought to be no big deal. In the minds of many people, fuelled by the media coverage, it became an insult to those who died, with Islam taking the blame. So Jones' statements dropped neatly into a pre-existing news story.

As the anniversary approached, so he got more coverage, much of it live, with his every pronouncement given the status of something between a plane hijacker and a world leader. His demands for a showdown with an 'Iman'(actually Imam, but he knows so little about Islam that he got the name wrong) to get them to back down on the 'plans for the mosque' and then finally his decision not to carry out the book burning gained him access to live broadcasts around the world. Meanwhile all manner of public figures lined up to pass comment and in Muslim countries there were protests which led to some people dying.

Many commentators have suggested that this was an example of news coverage getting out of hand and creating a story which caused an awful lot of damage. I agree. It's one of the big dangers of social media, that the extreme views of a minority expressed to a minority online get whipped up by broadcast media- which still reach a far bigger audience- and these views gain undue credence and respectability in order to fill airtime and provide 'a good story'.

On Saturday morning, I heard an interview on Radio 5 with the British mother of someone who died in the tower on 9/11. It was heartbreaking and poignant as she told of how she saw the coverage live that day and tried to ring her son but knew that he was dead. But what made it worse was when the interviewer then went on to ask what did she think about the threatened book burning and the proposed mosque, each of which she angrily condemned as just as bad as each other. It was lazy and intrusive journalism; it should have ended with her recounting her grief, but it ended up once again reinforcing the myths and opening up division.

Normally I'd try to put some lighthearted clips in my blog, maybe response videos from youtube, but it wouldn't be appropriate for this topic (plus I couldn't find any!). Instead, I found this clip from a month ago from a little known US radio politics show, where the excellent host lets the Rev Jones explain all his views. If the mainstream media had been sensible, they'd have listened to this and just said, "ignore him, the man's a bigot and ignorant" But they had to have a story...

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