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The Media and Islam-o-mania: Gasoline for the Fire

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Breaking news, everybody: Sarah Palin posted something on Facebook! Responding to a Florida church’s plans to burn Korans on 9/11, she writes:

Book burning is antithetical to American ideals. People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation – much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.

Beyond the headline—Palin Denounces Koran-Burning—there’s a rhetorical move there you could have seen coming blindfolded: Palin, who jumped in early on the call to refudiate the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, now frames the proposed burning as being “much like” the center. The media loving a good easy equivalence, you can expect to see a lot of this—the contention, or simply the assumption, that burning a holy book is equivalent to building a house of worship where other people don’t want it.

What’s more, it’ll probably be successful. All you need is enough stories that use “Koran burning” and “Ground Zero mosque” (a misnomer, but a Google-friendly one) together, and the meme becomes, “See, we denounced this offensive thing; why can’t they give up that equally offensive thing?”

I don’t agree with that framing for many reasons—to take just one point, it’s not as if there’s an argument that Koran-burning would be more sensitive a few blocks away—but in any case one aspect of Palin’s comparison is right. The book-burning controversy and the mosque-building controversy are comparable—in that they are both largely creations of their media coverage.

First, the Park 51 Islamic center has been in the works for a long time. It was covered in the press last year without outrage. On Fox News in December, conservative commentator Laura Ingraham interviewed Daisy Khan, wife of the project’s imam, and told her that no one seemed to have a problem with the center and that “I like what you’re trying to do.” Then, about half a year later, a right-wing blogger and the New York Post decided that the project was, in fact, offensive. Whereupon various conservative politicians and pundits, Palin included, determined that they too were very offended, or at least that it was politically advantageous to be. (See Justin Elliott’s reporting in Salon for extensive details. Salon, for which I once worked, is admittedly a left-of-center outlet, but the timeline is the timeline.)

The nonstory was suddenly a story because someone decided to make an issue of making it an issue. And you know where we went from there.

The plan by Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Fla., to burn Korans on 9/11, meanwhile, got attention for a couple of sadly predictable reasons. First, because tiny groups of fringe idiots—hate protesters like Rev. Fred Phelps, flag burners—regularly get attention out of proportion to their significance, because they push people’s buttons and that means ratings and readers. (If I wanted to drive traffic to this blog, I’d just put “Ground Zero Mosque” and “Koran” in every headline, with the occasional “Bieber” thrown in.) And second, it coincided roughly with stories already in the media—thanks largely to the suddenly-a-controversy Islamic center—about Muslims, tolerance, religious freedom, terrorism, Islamophobia, people-believing-Obama-is-a-Muslim, and sundry other hot-button reliables.

In any case, I’m not sure that the media at this point can or should, as Palin advised Pastor Jones, “stand down.” This is, unfortunately, one of those cases in which, by having become news, the story is now making legitimate news. World leaders and military leaders have weighed in, there is real international attention to the story and the prospect of real-world, non-virtual protest and unrest if the burning goes on. Meanwhile, here in New York, anti-Park 51 protesters are bringing decommissioned missiles to Ground Zero. Because, you know, sensitivity.

In the meantime, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf spoke on CNN about the plans last night. It’s worth hearing, if anybody is actually doing any listening to anyone else at this point.