Let’s keep this post as abstract as possible, as the less publicity the renegade Gainesville book-burners get for their idiotic stunt, the better.
Why is a dim-witted “protest”by a fifty member church that we were all blissfully unaware of until recently a national, international, or even local news story? I am pretty sure I could gather a group of fifty friends in the parking lot across from my house on Arbor Day and burn an effigy of ultra-prolific junk novelist James Patterson to protest the many trees that have died to bring his books to Barnes and Noble. Would that be newsworthy—a few wackos doing something just to get attention? Does the public have a right to know about a trivial and pointless event that is only occurring so that the media will make it news?
Let us now assume that there is a powerful James Patterson cult, funded by an eccentric billionaire fan, and that it has acquired nuclear weapons. The news media is aware that this ritual Arbor Day demonstration will infuriate cult members, perhaps leading to a “dirty bomb” being set off in a U.S. city in protest. Does this make my demonstration news? Is the news media now obligated, by its duty to inform the public, to cover my effigy cookout as if it was the Obama Inauguration or Princess Diana’s funeral? Is there a “double wacko rule”—one group of wackos, not news; two groups of wackos, each reacting to the other—news?
Could it be that the U.S. news media’s coverage of the Gainesville Idiots version of “Everybody Tick-Off Islam Day” is just irresponsible, not good journalism but wretched, unethical journalism, creating a news event, and a dangerous one, by the act covering it?
It would seem so. Somewhere in this great land of patriots, heroes, laborers and fools there may be someone who uses pages of the Koran as toilet paper. He may have an IQ of 43, live in a box, and root for the Kansas City Royals, but that’s what he does. Should the media search out this odd soul and make him an international symbol of intolerance, inflaming anti-American sentiment in the process? Of course not. The difference between publicizing his eccentricities, my anti-Patterson orgy and the Koran burning are minimal.
There is a catch, however. Journalists have proven to us, beyond any doubt, that they are incapable today of making fair determinations of what news is. Stories are covered or not covered according to ideological bias, reporter agendas and advertiser preferences. Events involving fads, celebrities, oddities, sex and perversity will receive wildly disproportionate coverage, while important developments in foreign wars, science, the arts and more will be systematically ignored. Is the Gainesville pastor’s calculated insult to Muslims less newsworthy than, to take random news items from today…”NJ Shore Bumper Sticker Disses Visitors”? “Circus Forced to Stop Live Fish Regurgitation Act”? “Lindsay Lohan’s Mom ‘Disappointed’ in Snooki’s Judge”?
To an information-obsessed, trivia-crazed, values-muddled culture in which people really sent Twitter messages to thousand of “followers” reading “Just bought some cool shoes…LOL“, anything is newsworthy. It would be wonderful if we could trust those who report the news to use good judgment, and to eschew turning an addled, hate-filled minister into a symbol of America, but we have seen these same professionals apply what judgment they have to conclude, for example, that a Democratic Congressman physically assaulting a student on the streets of Washington, D.C., or a favored community organizing group advising prostitutes how to scam the system, or a White House policy czar expressing”Truther”sentiments, aren’t worth reporting, when of course they were, and are. The news media cannot be trusted to decide what is news and what isn’t, so we dare not criticize journalists for being excessively inclusive, even though there will be times, like now, when we wish they were not. The alternative is to allow them to decide what news is good for us, and they have shown that they don’t know that…they just think they do.
There may have been a time in the dim past of journalism when it would be fair to expect the Fifth Estate to avoid turning a book-burning into an international incident solely by reporting it, but that time has past. We should be pleased if today’s reporters just get the facts right. That is about the highest standard of ethical journalism we can demand today.