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Did the media 'elevate' the Florida Quran-burning story?

When ABC’s Jake Tapper asked President Barack Obama in Friday’s White House press conference if Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ phone call to book-burning organizer Terry Jones "elevated" what was previously a “fringe” group, Obama responded, “I hardly think we're the ones who elevated this.”

Obama’s implication was that we, the media, did the elevating. The question is: Did the media overhype this story?

It’s actually a question of what pointy-heads in Ivory towers call “agenda setting”. (I know because that’s what my awesome professors told me at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.)  Who sets the news agenda – the order and rank of the news of the day? Did the media drive the story beyond its merits, or dutifully follow and report the statements and concerns of U.S. and foreign leaders? 

“The answer is: The press did over cover it,” said Michael Shanahan, journalism professor at GWU (Note: not while I was a student).

But hold on, there’s more to that comment, and we’ll get back to it in a moment.

One easy way to find an answer is simply look at the news timeline.

On August 5, the Houston Chronicle ran a “Religion News Service” article that said the National Association of Evangelicals and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish civil rights organization, issued statements condemning the plans of Gainesville, Florida’s Dove World Outreach Center, to burn Qurans on Saturday, September 11. No national news picked up on that.

Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media writer, says he found an article by that same service dated July 21, and Salon notes a Saudi Arabia's al-Arabiya ran the story on July 28, which quickly spread across other Arab-language media.

On August 18, an Associated Press reporter in Gainesville filed a short story saying that the local fire chief denied Jones’ group a permit it requested to hold a bonfire specifically to burn books. Now, that’s a legitimate news story that also noted some background -- the church made news last year by distributing T-shirts that read “Islam is of the Devil,” which also is the name of a book written by Jones.

Some national media picked it up, but hardly hyped this story, for another two weeks. 

Then, on Monday, Sept 7, a group of up to 500 Afghans protested in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Now, that’s something. Now there was an event – a significant sized protest smack in the middle of the war about something so offensive to Muslims happening back in America that anybody who has followed the wars knows could spark a whole lot of Muslim outrage against the United States.

Fox News and others picked up the protest story – any news organization with people in Kabul knew about it -- and they went straight to the U.S. war commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, for comment. 

He gave them a doozy.

Petraeus told Fox: "I am very concerned by the potential repercussions of the possible [Quran] burning. Even the rumor that it might take place has sparked demonstrations such as the one that took place in Kabul yesterday."

"It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort in Afghanistan. It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world we are engaged with the Islamic community."

Shanahan said that's when global media perked up.

“The moment Petraeus asked the guy not to do it because it put troops at risk- from that point forward it’s a legitimate story," he said.

“You can’t not cover Petraeus telling the guy not to do it. That gave it bigger legs than it had before.”

Now, Fox asked for a comment. Arguably, they were looking for highest possible official to comment, and let’s be clear, that’s our job as journalists. Petraeus didn’t have to say anything. He could have downplayed it. He could have not returned calls, or sent statements on record, or gone on NBC Nightly News, as he did. But Petraeus is famous for giving journalists comment on nearly anything they ask, emailing with us regularly. (Hi, general!) I’m sure Fox knew that, too, when they asked him.

“That’s legitimate journalism,” Shanahan said. “You could argue whether it could lead the newscast or should be on page one…. The thing we will never know is what if Petraeus hadn’t said anything.”

When I came into work on Tuesday, I recall that I had heard something about a church threatening to burn Qurans. But the first I heard that Petraeus had commented on this topic was Tuesday morning, when I was standing in the daily Pentagon press gaggle – an informal off-camera, on-record press conference.

Well, when the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan says it’s a threat, it’s news.  

Some background: When Rev. Franklin Graham went to Iraq in 2003, his very presence there caused alarm that he would promote a false U.S. image of wanting to convert Muslims to Christianity. He didn’t help his cause when he called Islam a “wicked” religion. In 2005, incorrect news that a Koran was used in Guantanamo Bay interrogations sparked riots in which 15 people died.

Reporters – with that background in memory -- wanted to know if other top administration officials shared the alarming concern that Petraeus had expressed.

On Wednesday, when asked for her reaction, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was “un-American”, becoming the highest-ranking official to comment on the issue. With thousands of NATO troops also under threat, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, visiting Washington, said "such actions are in strong contradiction with all the values that we stand for and fight for." 

Then the Pope made a statement. Angelina Jolie made a statement. CNN reported Hamas leader Ismail Haniya called Jones a "religious criminal." Other condemnations came from the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.

Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani said something.  So did a Taliban spokesman. 

All of that happened during the otherwise news doldrums of Labor Day week, amid more discontent over the Islamic cultural center planned for downtown New York.

“There’s something going on out there in which all this polling shows that people are still in a kind of delayed trauma from 9/11 and there’s not a good understanding of Islam in the country, and so we are - as a country we overreact,” Shanahan said. “And when the country overreacts then the press over reacts.”

So….Who hyped whom?

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