The new media narrative (which has been gathering speed and force in the last week) is that this pastor-who-isn’t-really-a-pastor of a tiny Florida church who gained enormous notoriety in the media over his stated plan to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks (tomorrow) should have been ignored — that no one knew who he was or had ever heard of his church before the press picked up the story and started running with it. Various Internet writers, here at TMV and elsewhere, have bemoaned the fact that an unhinged, mentally disturbed pseudo-cleric was elevated from a complete nobody to a media bête-noire, and that if all these major news organizations had not given him and his Koran-burning project all this attention, either it would have happened with no one outside his immediate community knowing about it, or it would not have happened at all because his entire purpose in announcing his plans to burn the Koran was to gain exactly the attention he received.
From the start — since the first time I read this idea expressed — it’s been bothering me. It’s not that I disagreed with the underlying concept — that someone totally unworthy of all this attention has been lavished with it. But something about the argument was missing the point, or missing a larger picture, but I could not figure out exactly what. Various thoughts passed through my mind as I was trying to figure out what this larger point was. It felt silly to me to think that a plan to burn Korans — regardless of how small or unknown the group of people planning to do it — could have been “ignored” in this climate of anti-Muslim prejudice we’re living in. And the press’s critics, I felt, were themselves ignoring the strong probability that the Koran-burning story would not have gained the traction it did if there had not already been months of loud and very public controversy over the Islamic community center that is being built near the site of the former World Trade Center. The atmosphere in which such an act could occur (the Koran-burning) had already been well established, and calling for the press to ignore the story seemed to me to reveal a rather ostrich-like attitude.
A third idea that kept swirling in my head was that the Florida church story was not just about the U.S. media or whether Americans knew about it or how they reacted to it if they did. The hugely larger issue here was how the world’s Muslims would react to it. There appeared to be an assumption on the part of media critics that somehow if the New York Times, CNN, the Associated Press, and the broadcast news networks did not report the story, no one outside the United States would find out about it, either. That really bothered me, because once again it was an example of Americans thinking they are the center of the universe, and if they ignore something, it doesn’t exist for anyone else. And just on a factual basis, why were people assuming that the Muslim world did not already know about “Pastor” Jones’s plans to burn the Koran? And if they did already know, what was the value in keeping it such a big secret here?
However — and this is the crunch; the big lead-in that this very long introduction has been leading up to — I did not actually know exactly when this story had seeped into the consciousness of people in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan and everywhere else that Muslims live, or even IF it had been out there for significantly longer than Americans had been aware of it. Of course, I could have done the research to find out, but I didn’t — so I didn’t write about it, but continued to brood about it inwardly and try to get some clear angle for a story to coalesce in my head.
And that’s where things stood in my inner world until 10 or 15 minutes ago, when I read a piece by Justin Elliott, formerly a reporter for Talking Points Memo and now a staff writer at Salon. Elliott pointed out that Terry Jones and his church did not become anything like a significant story until Gen. David Petraeus got involved, by asking Jones to call off the event. Then, as Justin puts it, the story “exploded in the U.S. media, going from a sideshow to the dominant national media controversy of the week.”
That’s predictable enough, right? When the commander-in-chief of U.S. forces in Afghanistan asks a tiny, unknown Florida church to cancel their plans to burn the Koran on September 11, that is legitimately important news, and you cannot expect the press to ignore it.
But WHY did Gen. Petraeus think this planned Koran-burning event was important enough to actually personally appeal to Jones (and even call him on the phone). After all, the U.S. media had done very little with the story up to that point, and relatively few Americans probably even knew about it.
Critics of the American media’s coverage of the Quran-burning saga are loud and plentiful, and they have a strong case. In short, the U.S. media has given a global platform to a fringe pastor with a tiny flock, elevating him to a level of significance that would make most members of Congress jealous (whether or not he actually executes his plan). But those media critics are also missing the point.To grasp the real story here, one has to understand the context in which Petraeus decided to weigh in: At that time, the Quran burning had already been treated as a major story in the media in the Muslim world for several weeks. In other words, since at least late July, when it started to get attention in some Muslim-majority countries, the story has been doing untold damage to America’s reputation.
“It was a big issue over in the Arab media before U.S. media picked it up,” Marc Lynch, director of Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, told Salon in an e-mail.
Lynch said that the first story in his files on the Quran burning is this July 28 report from the Saudi TV station al-Arabiya. That in turn “generated discussion on jihadist forums and other media outlets way back then,” Lynch said.
By that point in July, according to Howard Kurtz’s timeline, the story had gotten some play in the U.S. but had not attracted much interest.
Meanwhile, the story was percolating through the media in Muslim-majority countries, where it was often framed as the latest and most egregious example of rising Islamophobia in the United States, according to Gregg Carlstrom, a journalist with Al-Jazeera English who is based in Doha, Qatar. And given the history of angry reaction to real or perceived vandalism of the Quran, there’s no doubt the stakes were high. In Afghanistan and Indonesia there have since been protests of the Quran burning.
Thank you, Justin.