“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” I remember clearly reading the First Amendment on the building façade as I walked up to the Newseum, a museum of news history, in Washington D.C. I entered the building valuing these freedoms and the importance of the press.
One of the largest exhibits in the building was the 9/11 Gallery. The recovered, yet mangled media antenna from one of the Twin Towers served as the centerpiece of the display. Front pages of newspapers from around the world lined one wall and a display of the chronology of events from that day circled the huge antenna. It also documented the story of journalists who risked their lives that day to get the story. At this exhibit, all of the visitors walked slowly, deliberately and quietly. If something needed to be said, people whispered to each other. The memories of 9/11 remain vivid and the wounds unhealed.
When the terrorist attacks occurred on September 11, 2001, a few angry Americans lashed out against American Muslims and attacked them in places like Arizona, Texas and Ohio. It was President George W. Bush that responded by saying, “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America; they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of their behavior.”
Today, Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who proposed burning copies of the Quran on September 11, 2010, doesn’t represent the best of America. His religious intolerance and lack of understanding of Islam has fueled fervor across the nation. He gained publicity and created an international incident when the media gave him the platform to spew his anti-Muslim sentiments. What had initially been a local story became an international story after the Associated Press got a hold of it. The story spread across the internet and Terry Jones manipulated this to gain further media attention.
News organizations embraced the controversial nature of this story as it drove traffic to their websites. A quote carved into a display at the Newseum states, ” … Freedom includes the right to be outrageous.” What Terry Jones proposed doing would be labeled by some Americans as outrageous. At best, this story began a dialogue around the country debating his right, and the right of his followers to freedom of speech. However, there is something that is missing from this story.
Another quote at the Newseum asserts that, “Responsibility [of the press] includes the duty to be fair … A free press, at its best, reveals the truth.” For the press to be fair to the majority of Muslims in our country and around the world, it must make the effort to make the distinction between Muslims and radical terrorists. Because Terry Jones did not make that distinction, neither did the press in reporting the incident. Jones does not represent mainstream Americans, but many Muslims around the world may believe he does after reading the reports about this man.
News agencies sensationalized the story to drive traffic to their sites but failed to be fair and promote the whole truth. The press has yet to make mainstream several stories on various attacks on mosques across the nation in places like California and Tennessee. I know of moderate Muslims who have denounced extremists like Major Nidal Hasan who went on a killing spree at Fort Hood, Texas, last year. These statements do not receive media attention.
As Americans, we must adhere to our values of pluralism and tolerance. The American media must also exhibit those values with fairness by reporting stories from multiple viewpoints. It must also take responsibility and provide what this democracy needs, a free and fair press that aims to be at its best and not promote stories that incite and limit understanding.