The Media Held Hostage

Ross Becker

I don't know if that Gainesville holy man will change his mind. As of now he says he won't burn the Qur'an as a protest of radical Islam, but he could just as easily flip-flop and go ahead with his demonstration.

Two news organizations announced that if he does, they will not air the videotape or distribute the images of fire consuming the holy book of the Muslim religion. Is that right or wrong? Is this kind of self censorship appropriate?

Fox News announced it would not cover it, if it happens. In the Baltimore Sun, a Fox News manager is quoted as saying “We do not cover every flag burning that happens in this country. We don't run every hostage tape. This is really about using the same judgment.” He went on to say there are many more important things going on in the world this weekend than the pastor of a small congregation angrily burning the Qur'an.

One of the world leaders in news, the Associated Press, also issued a statement saying it will not distribute images or audio that specifically shows the Qur'an being burned and will not provide detailed text descriptions of the burning. The AP deputy managing editor said it will cover the event, but it will do so in a clear and balanced way.

These are tough decisions by these news organizations in a competitive world of instant journalism. Whether Fox News or the AP cover this story, images of the event will flash around the world via satellite and the Internet. The image will get out. The question is do we want to be a part of an event clearly designed to hurt, belittle and be generally offensive? Do we, as journalists, want to be held hostage by the notion that “everyone else is going to do it” so we have to do it?

A former boss of mine faced a similar decision in the late 1970's and he insists he made the right decision.

An angry man, Anthony Kiritsis, had taken a mortgage company executive hostage. He wired a loaded shotgun around the man's neck and paraded him through the streets of Indianapolis finally ending up in a cramped apartment on the east side of town. Kiritsis was “live” on TV the entire time. But, when he got to the apartment the live coverage ended because it was difficult to get into the apartment. Kiritsis marched out to the sidewalk with his hostage still tied to that gun and announced that he would shoot the man unless all stations in town fired up their live cameras to give him the soapbox he wanted.

WTHR News Director Bill Dean had to make a difficult decision. If he fired up the live camera, the TV station and its viewers then also became hostages. If he didn't, he might cause the death of the mortgage executive. Dean knew his station might be the only one NOT covering it. He decided to pull out. He ordered his crew to pack up and leave. He said he would not agree to be held hostage by a madman with a shotgun. The man was not shot. The other stations all put Kiritsis on TV live and people called WTHR applauding the decision not to, but admitted they switched to the other channels to see it “live”.

In a sense, Fox and AP are saying the same thing to the pastor in Florida. If he decides to burn that holy book, he has the right to do it. But, at least these two news organizations say they will not be part of his plan to flash the hurtful image around the world. Without that media cooperation, his book burning ritual becomes more of a local oddity than an international incident.

Of course, it will be covered if it happens and most won't show the same restraint as Fox and AP. In this age of instant communication, even small events become huge symbols and the responsibility of the media is even more important.

Categories: Becker’s Digital Notebook