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Burn baby burn: how the media created the Koran conflagration crisis

By Houston Ash - posted Thursday, 30 September 2010

The recent hoopla in America surrounding the threat by a Floridian Pastor to burn a Koran illustrates the danger of the media making news rather than reporting it.

Pastor Jones was nothing more than insignificant pastor with a very small “flock” in a pretty small American city. Had he gone ahead and burned a thousand Korans, no-one would have noticed – that is, until this non-story made national, and then international headlines.

Of course one can see why a television media that require 24-hours of content a day would be so attracted to Pastor Jones: he gave them advanced notice of his intentions, and could thus provide them with many-a-weeks’ worth of babble and counter-babble from so-called journalists and television pundits.


The ”story” soon began to feel like a bad television drama, and it was treated as one by people around the world who tuned in daily to watch their favourite pundits speculate on how it was all going to end.

As the story unfolded, people became more and more anxious about the potential fallout.

General Petraeus came out publically to warn that American troops would face retaliation from angry Muslims if the burning went ahead. And on CNN, an indignant newscaster told Pastor Jones that he would have blood on his hands if he saw his plans through to fruition.

Mercifully, the promise of a big finale did not materialise – no burnt Korans, and Pastor Jones kept his hands clean. But there was still blood. In Kashmir, a place that receives shamefully scant attention in the Western press, at least sixteen were reported dead after hundreds took to the streets to protest against something that had not even taken place.

Some have argued that the media had a responsibility to report on Pastor Jones, and not to do so would have been an act of self-censorship.

Well, if the only reason to ignore Pastor Jones was because it was likely to give offense, then I would certainly agree. But whereas one can come up with any number of reasons why Pastor Jones should be ignored, one is hard-pressed to find any reason why he shouldn’t be.


And besides, were they saying the same thing in 2006 when the same media organisations refused to show cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad? In that instance, the media were overwhelming asserting that they had a responsibility to self-censor. What has changed?

First, let’s briefly recap the events of five years ago: the initial publication of the ‘Danish cartoons’ was prompted by an ongoing debate about self-censorship in the European press. The Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, was concerned by the emergence of an insidious double standard whereby it was considered acceptable to ridicule and/or criticise religious beliefs, so long as they were not Islamic.

Their point was simple: a free press should not self-censor out of fear of offending a particular group of people, or because of death threats and other forms of intimidation. This was about free expression, and it is very much in the interests of any healthy society to uphold, and for the press to regularly assert, this fundamental principle. This is especially true if one considers it to be under threat and, as subsequent events demonstrated, it most certainly was.

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About the Author

Houston Ash is completing the final year of an arts degree at Sydney Univerisity.

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