News business can get burned by publicity seekers

The Quran burning did not take place at a tiny church in Florida Saturday, thankfully. It was a day that should have been reserved for honoring the memory of those killed in terrorist attacks nine years ago, not insulting millions of Muslims who had nothing to do with those horrible attacks.

Now, perhaps, we can agree Pastor Terry Jones has had his 15 minutes of fame and we can relegate his inflammatory, on-again, off-again stunt to news dustbins.

But Pastor Jones has reinvigorated an ongoing debate in the news business and at The Daily Sentinel in particular: When publicity-seeking nutjobs engage in activities clearly designed to generate news stories, should we cover them or ignore them?

For example, there is the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas, a tiny congregation made up primarily of people related to church founder Fred Phelps. The church has made a name for itself by staging vitriolic, homophobic demonstrations outside the funerals of U.S. servicemen and women killed in service to their country. The church’s logic-defying claim is that these patriotic military personnel deserved to die because they serve a country that has angered God by being too accommodating to homosexuals.

The Daily Sentinel covered the event when members of the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrated outside the funeral of a Montrose soldier killed in Iraq a few years ago. However, after initially covering Phelps and his church, most newspapers in Kansas now ignore them, believing any news coverage the Westboro clan receives only encourages it to stage more of the same events.

Should the Sentinel cover Westboro members if they return to this region to disrupt the funeral of some other Western Slope warrior killed in the service of the country? Readers need to know what is occurring in the area, and we have a responsibility to tell them. But we don’t want to encourage repugnant behavior by providing such people the publicity they crave.

Although Pastor Jones’ planned event had apparently been drawing attention in the Muslim world since July, most U.S. media didn’t pick up on it until last week. The first mention in this newspaper of Jones occurred Wednesday. We published a short editorial condemning the plan by Pastor Jones and his 50-member congregation at the Dove World Outreach Center.

(Readers may have noticed,  we referred to the Muslim holy text as the “Koran” in that editorial. Subsequent articles have spelled it “Quran,” the spelling the Associated Press now says is preferred. But The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, still spell it “Koran.” Just one more ongoing dispute within the news business.)

That editorial was followed Thursday by a brief Associated Press news article about various people objecting to the Quran-burning plan.

But Friday, the story that Jones was reconsidering his plans — and tying them to the proposal to build an Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero in New York — was near the top of the front page of the Sentinel.

There was considerable discussion about how to play that story during the daily news meeting Thursday afternoon. Ultimately, the news staff agreed it deserved significant coverage. Heck, when everyone from Gen. David Petraeus to the pope is condemning the proposed event — when President Barack Obama and Sarah Palin agree that the burnings are not only insulting and inappropriate, but would endanger U.S. troops — it’s hard to ignore an event.

Pastor Jones’ flip-flops (“We’ll burn Qurans. No we won’t. Maybe we will.”) kept the story churning through multiple news cycles, despite a plea from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the media to ignore Jones and his plan.

Thankfully, the anniversary of 9/11 came and went without book-burning at the church in Gainesville, Fla. But, given the attention he received simply by proposing to do something so outrageous, I don’t think we’ve heard the last from Pastor Terry Jones.

When he or some other publicity-seeking kook engages in a similar stunt, you’ll probably read about it in the pages of The Daily Sentinel, even though we may have a lengthy discussion about how large a story we should run and where to play it, based on the news space available and other stories that may be occurring at the time.

We’re in the news business, and informing readers about what’s happening in the world is our goal. But sometimes, as was the case with the stories about Pastor Terry Jones, we’ll report the news while holding our noses.


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