Burning books under Angelina's watch

Everyone from Barack Obama to Glenn Beck to Sarah Palin to Franklin Graham has denounced a Florida pastor's Quran-burning plans.

This little church planned the burning several weeks ago (as Christianity Today noted back in July), but General David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and now Obama seemed to open a can of worms for journalists to cover something potentially explosive on 9/11. Here's how The New York Times describes it:

The reaction in the Muslim world, many Islamic experts said, could be as bad--or perhaps even worse--than the reaction in 2006 when a Danish newspaper published a cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammad with his turban turning into a bomb. The cartoon ignited huge protests around the Muslim world. The United States stayed largely out of that, with riots and burnings directed toward Danish and European entities. But a burning of the Koran--Islam's most sacred text--in Florida would unleash that anger directly at the United States, Muslim scholars warned.

Why no specific attribution here? Didn't the Times just release guidelines on anonymous sources?

In her speech yesterday, Clinton said that she hopes the news media ignore it, drawing laughter from the audience. "We are hoping that the pastor decides not to do this," she said. "We're hoping against hope that if he does, it won't be covered as an act of patriotism." But Petraeus, Clinton and Obama act as the Pied Piper and journalists seem like the children who will follow them. Are they actually worsening the situation by drawing attention to it? Otherwise, would a 50-member church get such attention? Then again, if they don't denounce it, do they get blamed later? Catch-22.

When evangelical leaders (National Association of Evangelicals and several other people like Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention) denounced the burning several weeks ago, few reporters covered the story. Now you have Angelina Jolie on the trail, so I guess it becomes a story.

If we're keeping a running list, we can add the Vatican, Stephen Harper, the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, Open Doors, Al Mohler and Rick Warren among many, many others. As Brad suggested earlier, when reporters cover these angles, they should attempt to explains the theological reasons for their opposition.

The Washington Post has a new story on how evangelical pastors are trying to reach out to the Florida pastor. What else are evangelical leaders supposed to be doing right now with a completely independent pastor on the loose? If they don't address it, it might look like silent affirmation.

Some religious leaders said they fear that Jones won't listen to strangers, or they are reluctant to fuel something that they hope will go away.

Others said the fact that evangelical leaders aren't taking more action reflects a distant and sometimes tense relationship with Muslims and the fact that many evangelicals are skeptical of Islam.

Why the anonymous, unattributed references here?

Rachel Zoll of The Associated Press provides a helpful explainer article to help people understand that this Florida church is on the "fringe of U.S. Christian life."

Dove's religious beliefs are spelled out in a comparatively brief statement of faith on its website.

The church frequently mentions "apostolic leadership" and "apostolic anointing," terms from Pentecostalism, which teaches that the Holy Spirit can manifest itself today through speaking in tongues, healing and other miracles. But Jones has no apparent ties with any major groups or thinkers in Pentecostalism, according to Vinson Synon, dean emeritus of Regent University's School of Divinity, who has studied Pentecostals for decades.

Some people still expect further denunciations from other Christians. Stephen Prothero wrote at CNN's religion blog that he's still waiting for Newt Gingrich to make a statement on the burning. This raises that never-ending question of who should and shouldn't denounce people on the fringe of religious groups. It's the perennial question when Fred Phelps coverage pops up, and you could extend the analogy to other religious groups. It can make everyone involved a little awkward.

Unlike Prothero, Denny Burk, a New Testament professor at Boyce College, says he feels no urge to comment on the plans.

Why comment on a crackpot pastor's publicity stunt that in no way represents how American Christians feel, much less how Americans in general feel? Nevertheless, the media has been playing this story as if Koran-burning were an evangelical pastime.

So is the media overplaying this? Kelly McBride offers some tips at Poynter for coverage. Here are her suggestions (she fleshes them out in her column).

Don't go. Give your audience what it needs to understand the big picture. Be judicious about the material you publish, especially images. Take a stand. Cover the reaction, not the fanatic. Talk about how you will react to confrontations ahead of time. Help your audience understand why this is hate speech, not a simple protest.

How much of this is directed reporting, though? It deals with that ever-present journalistic consideration: the outcome of coverage. So the questions for journalists remain: How much coverage does this deserve? What should they do on 9/11?

Second image used with permission from Nick Sementelli of Faith in Public Life. This image has been updated.

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