Journalists Question Implications of Covering Quran Burning and NYC Muslim Community Center

Media sought ways to report on controversy without perpetuating it

As controversy simmered in the weeks leading up to Sept. 11, 2010 around a pastor's threat to burn a Quran and a proposal to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan, commentators and media organizations considered how much the news media might perpetuate the scandal they were covering, and its backlash.

Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainsville, Fla. received international media attention when he threatened to burn copies of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

According to The Washington Post on September 10, Jones first announced his plans to burn copies of the Quran on July 12, 2010 with a series of statements on Twitter that culminated with the statement "9/11/2010 Int Burn a Koran Day [sic]." On September 7, ABC News reported that Jones had also announced on Facebook on July 12 that September 11, 2010, would be "International Burn a Koran Day," and that members of his church would burn copies of the Quran on that day.

News about Jones' plans spread quickly. EuroIslam Info, a Harvard University sponsored news site that covers "news and analysis on Islam in Europe and North America," picked up the story on July 14 and posted it in its "Islamaphobia Observatory" section, and the story spread online among Islamic communities, particularly via Facebook. The September 10 Washington Post story reported that in early August, chain messages were circulating on Facebook protesting Jones' page and calling for its removal. Dozens of groups were formed to protest the page, which was removed in early September.

Jones later connected his planned Quran burning with the "Ground Zero Mosque"--a frequently used name for the proposed Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan known as Park 51--saying he would not burn the book if the center was moved. Park 51 garnered news coverage as early as Dec. 8, 2009, when The New York Times devoted a front-page story to the project. The story quoted the lead organizer of the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, as saying that the project organizers wanted to "push back against the extremists."

Controversy picked up significantly for Park 51 when a community planning board in New York City approved its preliminary plans on May 6, 2010 and The Associated Press (AP) produced a story about it the same day. The story included quotes from those supporting and opposed to the project, and was published by USA Today on May 7. CNN also covered the project's approval on May 7, as did other national news media. The New York Post ran a story on May 6, 2010, with the headline "Panel Approves 'WTC' Mosque."

According to an August 16 story on, the term "Ground Zero Mosque" was first used when Laura Ingraham, co-hosting "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News, interviewed Rauf's wife, Daisy Rauf, about the project. According to the story, Ingraham applauded the project at the time.

Alissa Torres, a contributor to whose husband was killed in the 2001 attacks, wrote September 7 that she received an e-mail from a New York television reporter on May 6 who wrote, "I am working on a story today about the proposed mosque project at the WTC site. I am interviewing the developers but I am also trying to look for family members who think building a mosque at the site is a bad idea." In her article, Torres said that the query seemed "a bit leading," and wrote that she felt the media were trying to exploit those who lost loved ones in the attacks by "trying to create a controversy where there is none, in raking over wounds that--nine years later--still hurt."'s August 16 story stated that Park 51 never should have been a controversy in the first place because "they have had a mosque in the same neighborhood for many years. There's another mosque two blocks away from the site. City officials support the project. Muslims have been praying at the Pentagon, the other building hit on Sept. 11, for many years."

Meanwhile, national news media considered how to cover Jones' proposed Quran burning in light of threats of violence and reprisals against U.S. troops and citizens abroad. The Washington Post reported September 10 that the first large protest in response to the planned Quran burning took place in Indonesia on September 4. On September 6, protesters in Kabul burned an effigy of Jones and chanted "Death to America," according to the Post.

On September 7, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, released a statement saying, "Images of the burning of a Koran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan--and around the world--to inflame public opinion and incite violence." Pakistani publication Dawn quoted Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on September 9 saying that Jones' plan, if carried out, would "cause irreparable damage to interfaith harmony and also to world peace."

In a television interview on ABC News' "World News," on September 9, President Barack Obama said that burning Qurans could "greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan." In a news segment following the interview, ABC reported that "across the world, crowds took to the streets to protest the planned burning of the Quran" with September 9 protests in Pakistan and Afghanistan being the largest. CBS News reported on September 12 that the protests in Afghanistan lasted for three days, from September 8 to September 10, killing two and injuring four.

According to the September 9 "World News" report, the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide warning that day for Americans traveling abroad, out of fear that Americans might be targeted if the planned burnings went forward. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also placed a personal call to Jones to warn him of the potential national and international security threats, ABC News reported. According to The Washington Post on September 10, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also contacted Jones to ask him not to go forward with the burning.

Amid the warnings and calls for Jones to halt his plan, the AP and Fox News both announced that they would not air any footage of the planned Quran burnings if they took place. According to TVNEWSER, a blog on, CNN, NBC, ABC, and CBS all planned to cover the event.

The Boston Globe reported on September 9 that Michael Clemente, Senior Vice President at Fox News, said in a phone interview that the network's decision not to broadcast was "about judgment." Clemente told the Globe that Jones was "one guy in the middle of the woods with 50 people in his congregation who's decided to try, I gather, to bring some attention to himself ... there are many more important things going on in the world than that. I don't know what they will be this weekend, but I am sure they will be more important than that."

Tom Kent, deputy news director for the AP, sent out a memo to AP staff on September 9 informing them of the decision not to broadcast the planned Quran burning and offering guidelines on how to limit coverage of it to one story a day. "AP policy is not to provide coverage of events that are gratuitously manufactured to provoke and offend. In the past, AP has declined to provide images of cartoons mocking Islam and Jews," the memo read. The memo stated, "should the event happen on Saturday [September 11], the AP will not distribute images or audio that specifically show Qurans being burned, and will not provide detailed text descriptions of the burning. With the exception of these specific images and descriptions, we expect to cover the Gainesville event, in all media, placing the actions of this group of about 50 people in a clear and balanced context."

Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, wrote in a September 9 blog post that "Whether it's the coverage of the plans to build an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan or reporting on the United States' interrogation of potential terrorists, misinformation is as common as good information." McBride urged editors to use caution in their coverage of Jones' plan to burn a Quran and the Park 51 project, in light of the potential for international backlash.

Jim Osteen, executive editor of The Gainesville Sun, said in an e-mail to McBride that his newspaper was "trying to keep our readers informed without alarming them, or giving this misguided pastor more of a stage than is deserved. While we can't escape the reality of what is likely to happen Saturday, we are committed to not sensationalizing the event."

Mike Thomas, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel was more direct in his criticism of the media: "I ask you: If a sad little man burns some Qurans in the woods, and the media aren't there to film it, is it news? Of course not." Thomas wrote. "We created the Rev. Terry Jones from dust. And in two weeks, to dust he shall return. Then we'll move on to the guys who plan to run over the Quran at their monster-truck pull. Whatever it takes to keep your attention."

Jones announced September 9 that he had canceled his planned Quran burning, claiming that Florida Imam Muhammad Musri had promised to broker a deal with the group planning to build Park 51. In a televised press conference, Jones said that he would fly to New York City the following Saturday to meet with "the Imam at the ground zero mosque." Jones told ABC News on September 9 that Rauf had "agreed to move [Park 51]. And we have agreed to cancel our event on Saturday. Americans don't want the mosque there and of course Muslims don't want us to burn Korans," Jones said.

However, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour for the ABC program "This Week," Rauf denied that any deal was made, or that he had even spoken with Jones or Musri. He said that he and his partners in Park 51 were not going to "toy with our religion or any other" and would not "barter. ... We are here to extend our hand to build peace and harmony."

On September 11, Jones appeared on NBC's "Today" show and announced that he and members of the church would not burn copies of the Quran. "We will definitely not burn the Quran, no. Not today, not ever," Jones said. Jones explained that his church would not go forward with its planned Quran burning, even given the announcement that the plans for Park 51 would not change. He said that he had received over 100 death threats, and that he believed that "God is telling us to stop," but that he also hoped he would have a chance to speak to Rauf. He stated that his goal had been "to expose that there is an element of Islam that is very dangerous and very radical," and that he felt his church had "accomplished that mission."

On September 9, the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. announced plans to burn a copy of the Quran along with an American flag on Sept. 11, 2010, according to the Kansas City Star. News website The Daily Beast reported on September 11 that the Church carried out the plan. The burning was covered by local television stations, but was not rebroadcast by any national news organizations, according to The Daily Beast. The Westboro Baptist Church also burned a copy of the Quran in 2008, The Daily Beast reported, without igniting international controversy.

The Westboro Baptist Church also protests funerals and preaches that America is "damned to hell," according to its website. Westboro's funeral protests were the subject of a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Snyder v. Phelps, in the fall of 2010.

On September 14, CNN reported that in the period surrounding Sept. 11, 2010 "at least three copies of the Quran were burned," in the United States, and that at a "counterdemonstration in London, anti-American protesters burned the Stars and Stripes and a copy of the U.S. Constitution."




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