The Press as Accelerant

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The Associated Press is kind of the nation’s arbiter of what’s happening. It has the most reporters in the most places, both here and abroad. On Thursday, the AP’s Tom Kent, the deputy managing editor for standards and production, sent out a memo saying the wire service would do its best to play down Terry Jones’ Koran-burning, if it happens.

Koran not being burned

“The concept of this planned event is offensive to many Muslims worldwide,” Kent says in his missive. “AP policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend.” But apparently coverage is permitted in advance of such events. Not to pick on the AP, which has a responsibility to report on what’s happening, but it has mentioned the possible Koran-burning in 22 items on its wire, according to a quick Nexis query.

There is an interesting post over at Talking Points Memo, where a reader identified only as MA says:

I remember being sent to monitor a tiny Ku Klux Klan rally in, of all places, Ann Arbor, when I was a stringer for the Detroit News in the early 1990s. Clearly they had chosen an avowedly liberal college town in the spirit of provocation in the hopes of getting some coverage. The editors told me that they didn’t want to give the KKK any free press, but I should show up in case anything newsworthy happened.

There were a few somewhat nervous and defiant KKK types whose words were drowned out by a larger crowd of counter-protestors. After about a half hour, the KKK packed up its crew and hit the road. They didn’t get any press coverage and they didn’t come back to Ann Arbor during my time there: no percentage in it. I suspect editors still have similar policies in place about the Klan, but it’s fascinating to me that they’re willing to give Terry Jones’s hate speech so much play. What has happened to the media environment that makes it possible for a fringe freak like this to get the media attention he so desperately craves, and without which he would have to close shop and find something else to do with his time? Whey are media outlets unable to just ignore this guy like they ignored the Klan’s transparent attempts at media manipulation. Being an editor still means deciding whose attempts at media manipulation will get play — is this a symptom of the decline of editorial control in the internet era? Is this coverage being driven by shifts in the media environment that make it impossible to ignore any member of the lunatic fringe who might do something creepy enough to gain saturation coverage in the blogosophere? Is it a function of the shift toward focusing on the most sensational and polarizing figures in order to win ratings by catering to the kinds of excitement and indignation a figure like Jones incites? If so, are we going to see editors start reversing their long-standing policies about not catering to the Klan’s media strategies? It’s kind of depressing to see how this guy can make the media twitch and dance — and the international media are, of course, eating it up, since it confirms so many international stereotypes about the US. Just how low do you have to go these days to get saturation cable coverage by outlets who clearly take pleasure in fuelling a productive spiral of incitement and indignation?

The Koran-burning story is being driven by a loony preacher trying to incite other loons — both those allied with him, as well as those against him — and the world media are too-willing accomplices. Why Terry Jones and his band of zealots is worth such attention is a fair question to ask. In the days before cable TV and the Internet, few would have paid attention to his antics. But now he’s on every network and front page, and the Drudge Report blares “Will He or Won’t He?” this morning. A more fitting headline would be: “Who Cares?”