How does a fringe preacher go from 50 congregants to the front page of 50 newspapers overnight?
Just say you’re going to burn the Quran. It took little more for the “Reverend” Terry Jones and his ironically named Dove World Outreach Center to go from obscure even in their hometown of Gainesville, Florida, to instant international infamy. But this twisted celebrity came at a cost: violent protests in Afghanistan and beyond. Generals, Cabinet secretaries and even the president were reduced to reasoning with an essentially unreasonable and insignificant man.
Reality TV, having adjusted our notion of reality by creating D-list celebrities famous just for being famous, now threatens to unsettle the world, and define the American Dream down. Octomom and Balloon Boy are bad enough, but Jones embodies the Joe the Plumber-ization of actual public policy—below-average people christened as symbols of a pre-fab populism, suddenly coming alive as actors on a larger stage. No less lame, we’re expecting that the president of the United States should know who “Snooki” is to prove that he’s in touch with the American people. This gossip-magazine approach to politics—perhaps the long-predicted legacy of entertainment businesses taking over news divisions—is an evolutionary step down from the sports metaphors that always afflict election season. Because this isn’t a game—it’s real life, with real consequences that contribute to the making of history. And when news organizations follow the lowest common denominator rather than take the responsibility of leading, the joke’s on all of us. The inmates end up running the asylum.
Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you’re stupid. The crusty Rev. Jones was just following an established formula for manipulating the Pavlovian press in the Internet age perfectly. It goes like this: Take a pre-existing narrative like the mosque debate (“Are Americans Islamophobic?”), add a fresh news peg, make it more extreme—and, presto, you’re guaranteed wall-to-wall coverage that the best PR agency couldn’t buy. Jones gamed the system so well that his decision Thursday afternoon not to burn the Korans became breaking news—and usually not doing something is the opposite of news. Then, by evening, he was equivocating yet again, generating still more headlines.
We can try to justify the coverage by dressing up the “Burn a Quran” stunt as a constitutional debate between freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but vibrant debates require two sides and even the most intrepid cable news booker couldn’t have found too many willing to endorse the Rev. Jones’ position. There wasn’t any high-minded explanation; it was just a base fascination that draws our attention for the same reason that people used to view public hangings or watch the Anna Nicole Smith show.
Rev. Jones knew what he was doing—he’d developed a taste of Westboro Baptist Church-style controversies (and now the Westboro folks are threatening to burn the Quran on his behalf. According to Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas, Jones previously sent some parishioners’ kids off to school wearing T-shirts that read “Islam is the Devil,” with predictable results. Earlier this year, he weighed in on local politics with the similar subtlety, this time offering the slogan “No Homo Mayor” (hint: it’s not Spanish) against a local candidate.
Rev. Jones is not the only hatemonger masquerading as a man of God—every faith has them. And, of course, there isn’t anything new about publicity stunts in politics or religion.
But in the Internet age, local cranks can quickly become national—and even international—stories, providing that they are willing to be shamelessly crazy in a way that confirms the worst stereotypes.
It’s an extension of the shock-jock strategy that has leapt from talk radio to congressional candidates in recent years—there’s no such thing as too extreme if it drives ratings, and screaming “fire” in a theater always draws a crowd outside. There’s now a greater incentive for testing the boundaries of taste and judgment, while more thoughtful voices too often get drowned out.
This is the dark side of populism and it reflects something of a market failure. Any fool can draw eyeballs with the promise of sex or violence—proposals to solve slow-moving problems are a tougher sell. With globalization, the stakes are even higher. A corrupt carnival barker’s stunt is now broadcast around the word enflamed by the oxygen of mainstream media attention. What happens in Gainesville doesn’t stay in Gainesville. It can end up threatening the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan, undercutting hard-won counterinsurgency gains, and serving as a recruitment tool for our enemies.
Media barons might approvingly quote the Romans’ admonition about “bread and circuses” while they count their money and media share, but they have forgotten the full context. Societies are capable of amusing themselves to death, just as the Romans did when they stopped caring about responsible civic participation and started indulging their all their base instincts all the time. Soon the barbarians were at the door.
The media didn’t create Rev. Jones, but it briefly made him infamous and increased his reach. There is a higher purpose in shining a light on extremists—keeping an eye on their influence. In this case, though, the attention gave an idiot disproportionate influence, and made it seem as if he was remotely representative, fueling the myth of moral equivalence with the fundamentalists we are fighting.
America came out looking bad, in part because we’ve forgotten that scandal and spectacle are not the same thing as news—bread and circuses are not enough to sustain a democracy. The “more perfect union” we strive for depends on a press with a sense of responsibility, an internal gut check that knows the antidote to demagogues is often a sense of humor combined with a sense of perspective.