So which media circus to cover?

So at this point, which subject interests you (or bores you) more, the Rev. Terry Jones story or the story about the story of the Rev. Terry Jones? As for me and my house, the answer is now officially "both."

As I wrote the other day, I know that the media cannot wish away these kinds of media circuses, not in a world with multiple cable channels, the World Wide Web and (cue: drum roll) YouTube.

However, we are clearly seeing a glimpse into the future of an important issue in the news. The question of whether the Quran has a different status than other religious texts (or holy objects or religious leaders or whatever), simply because a small percentage of Muslims will react to any threats to the symbols of their faith with violence, is a story that will not go away. It seems to me that a blasphemy law is a blasphemy law, no matter how a nation makes that decision.

So the arguments will continue about the wisdom of Jones having his day in the media sun. Click here for the prototypical New York Times story. Enjoy.

However, the Politico offered a story that led with a very interesting angle on the same old same old. It provided some facts about a subject that does interest me, still. How are journalists supposed to think their way through the crucial decisions that precede the storm? How did they do so in this case?

The answer? Here is the top of the report by Keach Hagey:

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says his group gets evidence of provocative acts involving the Quran all the time, and has issued a handbook to supporters offering guidance on what it should normally do about it -- nothing.

"We get videos every day of somebody who shoots the Quran, burns the Quran," he said. "We normally don't do anything about it, because we don't want to give them more attention than they deserve."

But given what the group perceives to be increased prejudice against American Muslims, especially as the bitter fight over the Islamic center in lower Manhattan has played out all summer, it made an exception to its policy when it learned of Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center's plan to burn a copy of the Quran on September 11th.

So on July 19 CAIR sent out a press release announcing its intention to respond to "Burn A Koran Day" by distributing free Qurans. The release included a link to Dove World Outreach Center's Facebook page for "International Burn a Koran Day." And that was how the threats of an obscure Florida pastor entered the international media blood stream.

As so often the case, the leaders of America's mainstream newsrooms really didn't make this call. Instead, CAIR officials decided -- I believe that their decision was sad, but wise -- to speak out against Jones after going through a kind of triangulation process that will be familiar to anyone who has spent a lot of time in a major newsroom.

This was going to be a story. Why? Timing. Face it, 9/11 is not just another day.

Why else? Because the cultural waters were already troubled by the tsunami of coverage about the proposed mosque near Ground Zero.

Do the math. Even though the news pivoted on an obscure person, in an out-of-the-way news market, this story was almost certainly going to break out. Thus, CAIR pushed the button.

So what happened next? The Politico story includes another calm observation about the craziness.

... Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, said it was ultimately irrelevant whether major news organizations decided to cover the event, since even a single image captured at on a cell phone camera and put online could have devastating consequences.

"Our feeling is, the picture or the image of a pile of Qurans, or copies of the Quran, being burned will live forever in the blogosphere, and it will be used, the way images of Abu Ghraib and the way images of the cartoons of the Prophet were used a few years ago by the radicals, the extremists, not only to recruit more jihadists, but also to deepen the alienation between the Muslim world and the West."

As a result, the only thing "responsible" news organizations could do, he said, was to provide context. Although Al Arabiya was among the first Arabic news sources to report the story, it was also among the first to report the condemnation of the plan by American religious and military leaders.

All of this took place in a context and the context, as reported by the Politico team, was a story that had already achieved critical mass.

And that was that. The picture was not pretty, but it wasn't going away. When will yet another story of this kind catch fire in the news? When those same familiar variables of timing, topic and visuals show up -- again.

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