The Koran burning by Florida Pastor Terry Jones that set off violent protests in Afghanistan was very nearly a non-story. Turns out Jones' previous publicity stunt left the media feeling burned and individually they reached a near consensus - not to cover him again. Who was the one media outlet who defied the blackout? And what happens if a Koran is burned and no one reports on it? Media ethicist Steve Myers of Poynter.orgweighs in.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. And in this segment we explore the difficulty of suppressing inconvenient news. It’s hard for governments, it’s hard for dictators, it’s even hard for the media themselves. Our coverage begins with this conundrum. If a Quran is burned in Florida and nobody reports it, is it still an outrage? Well, we almost found out. For more than a week after Pastor Terry Jones’ incendiary stunt, news of the incident reached virtually no Americans and very few abroad. That’s because local and national news organizations had previously resolved not to reward a bigoted provocateur with the publicity he craved. But one young stringer of one foreign press agency did file a story, which eventually was noticed in Afghanistan, whereupon, all hell broke loose. Steve Myers is the managing editor of Poynter.org, the website of the media ethics and best practices organization, and he’s delved into the timeline of this story. Steve, welcome back to the show.
STEVE MYERS: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: So a week ago you’re reading the newspaper and you see that there are demonstrations in Afghanistan in response to the Quran burning by Terry Jones. And your [LAUGHS] first reaction was, what Quran burning by Terry Jones?
STEVE MYERS: I thought I had totally missed the story. It was really bizarre that this, you know, had happened and I knew nothing about it.
BOB GARFIELD: And you discovered that there was a near-perfect conspiracy of silence by the press. As you began to dig into this, tell me what you discovered.
STEVE MYERS: I didn't really see any coverage inside the United States, it was all international. They all basically came back to the same Agence France-Presse story, an AFP story. And when I did a little bit of digging, I found that most of the media locally and some national media had decided to ignore this event.
BOB GARFIELD: They decided to do so because it was staged for no other purpose than to get the attention of the press, and they decided, therefore, you know, either individually or as a group not to give him the benefit of the very attention he was seeking.
STEVE MYERS: Yes, it looks like these news organizations made this call individually. At the AP they basically decided that this is a stunt, that we're not going to give a microphone to someone who’s preaching intolerance. At the local newspaper, at The Gainesville Sun, they had had misgivings, like other media, about how this went down last fall. A lot of media out there felt like it was a media circus and that they had been played. So when they got the initial press releases they decided, we're not going to give him oxygen like we did last year. We're just going to ignore this.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm, it was a bit of self-restraint that I wish, as a news consumer, were exercised more often.
STEVE MYERS: I spoke with the imam in Orlando who sent a statement imploring the media this spring to not cover this. And the imam told me that when he was up there last fall, many of the media knew that they were being manipulated but they didn't know how they could get out of the story, because they were already there. Everyone was already covering this, so they didn't feel like they could just walk away.
BOB GARFIELD: So while the press may have acted as individual news organizations more or less by accident in concert by ignoring this story, they did so at the urging of this local Florida imam. His name is Muhammad Musri, right? And he sent out what was, in effect, an anti-press release.
STEVE MYERS: Yes, when the imam was contacted for the first couple of stories in January, he made appeals to the reporters themselves, asking them to consider the impact of this. And then after the second or third interview request, he sent a statement to all the media that he had contact with. He actually gave the news organizations the advice that our faculty was giving last fall, which is to consider other ways of covering this story that don't just play into Terry Jones’ hands.
BOB GARFIELD: As it happens, at least one reporter didn't [LAUGHS] get the memo, and it was a young stringer for Agence France-Presse. When did he file his story, and what happened next?
STEVE MYERS: Yeah, Andrew Ford went to the church on March 20th, and he’d covered this theatrical mock trial in which the Quran ended up being – what a surprise – found guilty. And then they burned the Quran, which was really the point of this event all along. The stringer for AFP filed his story describing the burning, and that ended up getting posted online a couple of hours later in the middle of the night. And then he tracks the story over the next day or so and he finds that the story’s been distributed widely around the world; it just wasn't being reported in the United States.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, on the one hand, I'm all for journalistic best practices and I'm certainly for not feeding the flames of a publicity stunt. By the same token, we in the press are always at pains to explain to the public that, no, we are not a monolith [LAUGHS] and we are not working together to impose some sort of agenda on the world. But should I be nervous that so many news organizations did act, apparently, in concert to stifle this story, up until the point that Agence France-Presse broke it?
STEVE MYERS: I don't know that you should be nervous. I think that the fact that the news organizations thought about this hard before running after what would have been a sensational story, that’s good. I mean, it’s good that they had these discussions. It does raise interesting questions, though. These days we think that there are no secrets, and so the strange thing about this story is how close this came to not being reported.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve, thank you very much.
STEVE MYERS: Thanks a lot. I enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve Myers is the managing editor of Poynter.org.
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