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When Sensationalism Rules the News

A marginal Florida minister with a flock smaller than 50 rivets the nation's attention with a threat to burn 50 Korans. Attention to his bigotry builds slowly, from scant attention to a 2009 sign outside his Gainesville church that reads "Islam is of the devil," to more than 150 news media interviews in July and August of this year, according to The New York Times, that give him a platform for his latest brand of hate.

By this week that minister, Terry Jones, is fielding calls from the Secretary of Defense asking that he refrain from his announced Sept. 11 stunt after General David Patraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Aghanistan, warns that the book burning could endanger the lives of American troops there. The minister leads newscasts. His plan is condemned by the president of the United States, who tells ABC's "Good Morning America" it could be "a recruitment bonanza for al Qaeda."

No question, by this point, it's big news.

As Kathleen Carroll, the executive editor of the Associated Press, told New York Times reporter Brian Stelter, "Before there were riots and heads of state talking about him, it could have been a couple of paragraphs in a story about Sept. 11 commemorations ... It's beyond that now."

But that begs the question: How did things get so out of hand?

I cannot prove it. But I suspect it has as much to do with today's market-driven, 24-7, hyperventilated environment of "if the story sells, we'll be sure to propel it," as anything else. Like the nonsense that passes for politics as usual in the nation's capital, the news environment in this country is spiraling out of control.

News sites from The New York Times to CNN post a list of their best read stories, a means of spreading a market-driven gospel that's almost alien to the high-minded and now nearly antiquated journalistic concepts that the news media carry a social responsibility to help the citizens gain knowledge through unfettered information, and that it is such an informed public that sustains a free, democratic society.


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Is it mere coincidence that in this country today, nearly one in five Americans believe President Obama to be a Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, and that multiple tens of thousands more in the so-called "birther" movement remain convinced that he's an imposter who wasn't even born in the United States? I think not.

We live in a culture in which propaganda is passed off as news regularly with little sustained contextual confrontation by responsible reporters and news outlets. We live in the land of the argumentative, where nothing sells better on TV than a shouting match that typically signifies next to nothing beyond the sound and fury of its participants. We live in a news environment so fast-moving that there's rarely time to sort fact from fiction before the reportorial horde tramples one another to be first (and sometimes right) in breaking the next big scoop.

Mind you, news always has titillated as well as told of what is important, from the pre-press time of troubadours of the Middle Ages to the sensational dueling Hearst-Pulitzer headlines of the era of Yellow Journalism in the late 19th century. But today, once again, it's increasingly difficult to separate news from pandering nonsense, nor is there all that much effort from even the most elite media to do so. (Today, at the top of Page 1 of my New York Times, is a picture of a model, head cut off, in a glittering gold dress during the opening of New York's fashion week. It dominates the page.)

Still, it's not a bit of frivolity that bothers me so much as environment in which he (or she) who yells the loudest gets the most air. As Stelter's Times article notes, Jones planned Koran burning made the bigtime when he was booked by CNN. As The Times notes, "the host Rick Sanchez called his plan 'crazy' but added, 'At least he has got the guts to come on this show and face off.'"

What courage. Welcome to the screamfest that too often passes for TV news.

Today, of course, it's a cheap shot to pin all that's bad in news on TV. I checked today's Top 10 list at The New York Times. Stelter's front-page article hadn't cracked the list, but a Page 3 news story, "Florida Minister Waivers on Plan to Burn the Koran" was No. 10.

No. 1? An essay titled, "In the Garden: Fending Off the Weeds with Newsprint." Perhaps newspapers have a future after all.

Jerry Lanson

Jerry Lanson is an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College in Boston.  His third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves: Telling Stories in an Age of Blogging" will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this fall. His blog can be found at

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