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In new media world, you’re on your own

By Conrad Fink He vanished from the stage as quickly as he arrived. But what wreckage he left behind. He is Terry Jones, a self-described “pastor” who emerged from a Florida swamp of hate to announce he would burn a copy of the Quran to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks by Muslim terrorists. In these tense times, Jones and his benighted followers, numbering 50 at most, drew international attention with that threat to desecrate Islam’s holy book. In the Islamic world, riots predictably erupted as Muslim zealots hit the streets to burn, wreck and kill before battalions of cameramen and reporters. In this country, our own journalists flocked to Jones’ “sanctuary,” which doubles as a used-furniture outlet, and the stage was set. Television’s talking heads fed their 24-hour news cycle by discussing heatedly and repeatedly whether the President of the United States and Leader of the Free Western World should personally appeal to this man of the soiled cloth to back down. No less than our secretaries of state and defense, plus our top general in Afghanistan, did make the personal and demeaning appeal. Politicians chimed in, quickly turning to how all this would affect really important questions, such as the forthcoming congressional elections in places like Nebraska. And I was left thinking we – press, politicians, public – had been suckered. How could one Florida crackpot and a few followers (some of whom strutted before the cameras packing pistols on their hips) start such a firestorm? Timing, for one thing, of course. The good reverend sensed rising friction over religion and the anger of many Americans over Muslim plans to build a mosque near ground zero. But who handed the man a megaphone so his voice could reach beyond the furniture store to a global audience? The daintier elements of the mainstream media tried to handle the story calmly. The Associated Press (disclosure: my employer for 20 years) ordered its worldwide bureaus to hold coverage to a minimum and avoid inflammatory language or photos. The New York Times front-paged careful characterization of the man and his event, using words and phrases like “stunt,” “fringe pastor” and “hateful statements.” In the not-distant past, those media “gatekeepers” would have set a wider trend for sane, calm coverage by assigning to the story only experienced journalists working within strict codes of ethics and social responsibility. But during that weeklong firestorm, the Times and AP could stick just two fingers in a dike that had a thousand leaks. Web sites you never heard of, Internet commentators you don’t want to hear of and basement bloggers still in their pajamas sent a flood of often-incendiary words over and around the mainstream media and straight into cyberspace for instantaneous shock effect around the globe. That flood, in turn, washed back to exert enormous competitive pressure on reluctant mainstream media. How, editors asked, can we ignore even a crazy story, if everybody else is talking about it? Well, Jones backed down and disappeared into the well-deserved anonymity from which he sprang. But what about the next time a twisted ideology emerges from the swamp of hate? The mainstream media must be very discerning in what they report. But much of our national conversation today is in the hands of not only professional journalists but, as well, ideologues and just plain fools using marvelous new communications technology in twisted ways. Next time around, don’t expect much improvement in what you read, hear and view. Our politicians must act like statesmen, but that’s something not seen in our country for a long time. They are on their own 24-hour cycle – getting re-elected. Don’t expect a political response much different the next time a messenger of hate tries for a big hit. So, that leaves you, the public, to sort through the news and non-news, the truths and untruths, the information and misinformation, and arrive at a calm, responsible decision on what to believe. Good luck.

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