Nothing News

The only thing I really have to say about this whole ridiculous Koran-burning stunt is not directed at Terry Jones, who is perhaps the best and most current example of devolution in the American population. Terry Jones doesn’t get my ire because he’s a crab in the pubes of humanity. I flick him aside and get some Quell and that, my friends, is that.

What I am actually wondering, always wondering, in these situations is: Why is this news? And why such BIG news, worthy of coverage in every newspaper, TV station, and online outlet in this country and others? Related: Why is it news when some crazy lady says Obama is not an American? Why is it news that Glenn Beck likes to talk to large crowds in an attempt to sell things to them?

Sometimes the media recognizes its own folly. An illustrative example: I haven’t read much national coverage of Fred Phelps and his merry crew for years. They aren’t spreading any less hate, but certainly their message has worn thin. What Phelps and his “church” are saying on any given day is not news because it is not new, it is not relevant, it is not representative of any kind of general social outlook. He and his followers (most of whom are family members) are extremists, political outliers. They are folks whose views on the world have little-to-no bearing on that world, who are often completely socially disenfranchised. Appropriately, “news” about Phelps et al stops appearing because “news” about him is, by definition, impossible.

I don’t see how Terry Jones is any different. There is nothing new about his stance. There is nothing that is factually important or distinctive about Terry Jones, which is probably part of the reason he’s stoked up this media circus in the first place. There is nothing new about jingoism and racism. Certainly religious fundamentalism and the vengeance it promises is as old as humanity. There’s not even anything new about book burning, either as a fascist way to control a population, or as a free speech act. His shtick is tired. There is nothing noteworthy about it. But his story is being covered and covered and covered by the media.

I was despairing until I found an article at CBS online about the media response to the proposed burn. Most of the news sources CBS talked to, including the Baltimore Sun and Fox News, agreed that they would not be covering the event if it took place. (Though CBS, in a bit of coy caginess, declined to comment on whether or not they would).

This, to me, was a pleasant surprise. (Though perhaps wrong-headed: this non-story has only become a story thanks to extensive media coverage. It would be sensible to follow to the bitter end this monster of your own creation, newsmedia, but I appreciate the stab at ethics, even if it’s a bit late).

The fact that someone believes something that is ethically, morally and religiously corrupt is not news. The fact that this someone is planning to do something equally corrupt, but perfectly legal, is not news. If such an event were to take place, I would say: local news. If there were events that occurred as a backlash to the first event, that occurred in significant number, that occurred in areas outside of the location of that initial event: maybe national news. Maybe.

My point is: the insistence by the media on giving political outliers a national platform from which to spread their garbage is exploitative. It exploits and exacerbates the fears of a general public and it exploits the outlier him or herself, as I suspect some if not many of these people (Jones, Phelps, that Birther woman) are possibly mentally ill. Their realities may be sad, hate-filled, fearful and confusing to them. They may spend their lives trying to get others to believe the same unfortunate things they believe. This may be cultish. It may be ignorant. It may be irresponsible. But it is not news.

Instead, outliers and extremists, consider writing a book, self-publishing it, and selling it in your local grocery store like a normal American. Self-publishing your own crazy ideas about the world is as old as this country, just ask Benjamin Franklin. Do it proudly and with much zeal. But please stay out of my Times, my Post, my Tribune.

I hope that CBS article is the beginning of the end of the coverage of fanatical outliers. The cynic in me suspects not: the news has always been, to some extent, more invested in spectacle than truth. But it is heartening to see, however briefly, a turn away from that spectacle, and a thoughtful, ethical reflection on the function and responsibilities of the media by the media. Let’s keep it up. Even you, Fox News. Especially you.

UPDATE: Hah, as soon as I posted this, this:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/10/us/10obama.html?hp

Jones has agreed to call off the Koran burning if the Ground Zero mosque is relocated–a move he never could have made without the platform of the national media, who are implicated in his (attempted) bargaining. This is exactly why outliers should not be allowed the sort of national coverage Jones has been handed.

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