"Burn a Koran Day" coverage is mostly heat and not much light
Out of Florida, we have a developing, cringeworthy story of atypical Christian behavior.
This time, the bad news comes from the Dove World Outreach Center and its planned "Burn a Koran Day", scheduled for September 11. The coverage of the story has actually been minimal but sustained. I could only find about 25 sources on the story today.
At the moment, I view the Burn-the-Koran-Day story sort of like the occasional news story about the monk who lights himself on fire.
Self-immolation is spectacular, to be sure. But this sort of one-off story leaves readers woefully lacking any sense of whether other monks in that same tradition consider self-immolation to be normal, encouraged, or just plain crazy.
In the case of Dove World Outreach Center, its "look at me" event planning falls into the bizarre category. And reporters have a responsibility to explain that.
The non-denominational Dove Center's founder, Dr. Terry Jones, said he got the idea for the book burning event from the successful (I guess) "Draw Muhammed Day" Facebook campaign. Jones said that people have been sending in Korans to his church from all over.
Jones is also getting attention for his "No Homo Mayor" demonstration against Gainesville's openly gay mayor scheduled for August 2.
Jones claims that the Koran burning is "an opportunity for Muslims to convert" and a chance to show that "Jesus is the only way". The parallels between Jones' modus operandi and that of the almost-universally-reviled, "God-hates-fags" Westboro Baptists are clear. In fact, Jones has joined in some of the Westboro antics/protests in the past.
But there is a journalistic dilemma in this issue for me as one who would like to see more and better coverage of religion in the news. The question is, should this story be covered at all? What is newsworthy about it? How does the press or the public benefit from this story?
This is exactly the sort of juicy story that reporters just can't turn down, but it is also the kind of story that illustrates almost nothing about the mainstream of religious dialog. Others disagree.
Michael Tomasky at The Guardian mocks this as a kind of trend story, suggesting that it is emblematic of rising anti-Islamic tides in the US:
I'll say it again. This stuff is definitely on the rise, and it has to be correlated in some psychic way to the rise of extremism in this country, the Obama presidency and the idea some people have that there's a Mooslum in the White House...
Despite Tomasky's tone, the Huffington Post, and most of the media, have actually played this story very straight. Here's Huffington's lead:
Members of a church in Gainesville, Florida are planning to commemorate the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 by burning Korans.
Huffington wraps up its short story with a passing reference to past financial improprieties at the church.
This is the Miami Herald's entire story:
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A Gainesville church known for its statements against Islam is planning a Quran-burning ceremony on Sept. 11.
The Dove World Outreach Center is using its website and social-networking sites like Facebook to promote the event. Organizers plan to burn the Islamic holy text on church grounds.
In response, the Council on American-Islamic Relations is asking Muslims that day to invite friends and acquaintances to share educational, fast-ending Ramadan meals and distribute copies of the Quran.
The Gainesville church, which also campaigns against homosexuality, made headlines last year after distributing T-shirts that say "Islam is of the Devil."
The problem, of course, is that real people practicing a real religion have said and done these things. And, while it's bewildering to others of us who practice that same religion, it's important that people are accurately quoted to get their ideas on the record.
If nothing else, these stories help us frame the "extremes" of the debate. We know where the "out of bounds" lines are.
The biggest blind spot I can see in this coverage is not the story itself, but the lack of context for the church itself. The closest any story came to placing the church in any kind of theological or institutional tradition was the word nondenominational", which appeared in several stories.
That's a good start. Sort of. The public would be much better served if reporters would make two more calls (in addition to getting the obligatory statement from the Islamic Affairs Council) to other Christian leaders to get their comments about Jones and his approach.