Everyone with a television camera or a notepad seemed to be converging on Florida this week to ask Terry Jones: Will you burn the Koran?
Better questions might have been: Does God embrace bigots? Is there at least an ounce of shame in distracting the world from its real business? And when does Yosemite Sam get his mustache back?
That last one because woolly-whiskered Jones' TV appearances this week unreeled like some madcap cartoon. The harrumphing, huckstering faux man of God growled threats at Islam, then purred about his hope for compromise, then growled again. Cable television scrambled to broadcast every turn.
It was as if the pronouncements came from some head of state, not a hatemongering huckster whose congregation could barely fill a school bus. Commentators told us Jones had hijacked the national conversation. But news executives felt powerless to ignore him, especially once real newsmakers — the top commander in Iraq, the secretary of defense and even the president — called on Jones to drop his plan to burn the Koran.
The press corps couldn't have been more distracted unless Balloon Boy had taken to the skies — and landed on the South Lawn of the White House for a play date with the Obama girls. It would be nice to think that collective hysteria won't seize us again. But it will.
Why? For reasons that won't change anytime soon: Almost all media outlets, but particularly those on cable television and the Internet, have to fill an almost endless news hole. Conflict and the continual parsing of conflict go a long way toward filling 24 hours of air time and the bottomless maw that is the worldwide Web.
News organizations have an insatiable yearning to plumb the meaning of significant anniversaries and many were on the prowl — with the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks approaching — for signposts about the state of Christian-Muslim or Arab-Western relations.
The ubiquity and speed of the Internet and cable television mean that even the most marginal figures can find a worldwide audience. And the new media have a peculiar telescoping effect — obscure characters appear magnified yet stripped of their context.
Despite those vulnerabilities, the American media didn't leap, initially, at the story about the sketchy pastor and his proposed stunt — burning copies of Islam's sacred book on the 9/11 anniversary, under the twisted, sandbox logic that one good hate crime deserves another.
Religion News Service ran a short story July 21 about the proposed stunt. A New York Times blog, The Lede, reprised the account several days later. Then CNN talk host Rick Sanchez, who would become one of the biggest purveyors of the Jones story, jumped in.
On July 28, the amiable and not especially discerning host delivered a homily about how he had taught his children the Bible's admonitions about love and tolerance. Jones sure hadn't learned those lessons, Sanchez said. The next day, July 29, the CNN host confronted Jones with that message. The pastor, surprise, did not relent.
Sanchez found a way to raise the Jones case a few days later, and a few American newspapers gave accounts. But the Koran-burning threat did not gain momentum domestically for weeks.
Overseas, it was another story. Many papers ran at least some description of Jones' proposed desecration. A number of them publish in countries with substantial Muslim populations. That planted the seed that would fuel anger. Protests followed, some with threats of retaliatory violence. And that gave the story new legs back in the U.S.
An Aug. 23 Wall Street Journal article described how radical Islamists were seizing on another issue — the fight over plans for an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero in New York — to inflame the passions of their followers. But the story concluded that "the most violent threats" stemmed not from the New York debate but from "fringe issues," such as Jones' threatened Koran burning.
The piece unfortunately, and inaccurately, referred to the congregation, which has only about 50 members, as a "mega-church."
By late August, MSNBC's Chris Matthews weighed in, as did a few newspaper columnists, calling on the screwy pastor to drop his provocation. Then, on Labor Day weekend, the story took a critical turn when 500 people in Kabul protested the potential burning of their holy book. They burned Jones in effigy.
This was big time and Sanchez wanted credit. "I was the first to interview him," the CNN host preened. The cable outlet regained at least some honor Thursday with a report about how a church Jones had founded in Germany had disowned him. It seems Jones had been more focused on inflating his own ego than promoting Christ.
No matter, though. Gen. David H. Petraeus had already cited the threat to U.S. troops and called on Jones to stand down. That punched Pastor Hate's ticket onto the front page of dozens of newspapers, including this one.
With violent protests erupting in the Muslim world and such prominent figures in the mix, the once-obscure escapade had become a world geopolitical phenomenon. Some in the media, particularly in cable news, would take the opportunity to filter the story with their political prejudices.
Threatening to burn the Koran struck some, implausibly, as no different than a Muslim imam's insistence on building an Islamic center in New York. That sentiment had Glenn Beck, among others, equating the pastor — with his history of bashing gays and calling Islam a religion of Satan — with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the Islamic leader who had been working cooperatively across religious lines for years and saying he would open his mosque to people of all denominations.
Over at MSNBC, meanwhile, Keith Olbermann insisted that merely ignoring Jones didn't register sharply enough on the disdain meter. He demanded to know why Republicans, including George W. Bush, hadn't clobbered the loathsome Floridian. That went a step too far even for Olbermann's guest, former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, who had to remind the overwrought host that President Bush had gone to considerable lengths to make it clear that the vast majority of Muslims deserved our support.
As of Friday morning, Jones continued to step in front of the cameras, making demands, flailing to extend his camera time. And regrettably he still had traction, as dispatches rolled in from Gainesville.
In Washington, the media held off asking about Jones until well into President Obama's news conference, which was intended to focus on the economy. Obama did his small part to consign Jones to he-who-must-not-be-named status.
The president spoke of Jones only as "the individual down in Florida." But the pastor clung with vigor to the microphone, unlike Lord Voldemort, seemingly able to defy the better angels, thereby sustaining not only his evil, but his bad name.