Jonesing For Clarity

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Memo to everyone: SO, WHAT DID WE LEARN?

It's two days after the barely-averted Burnpocalypse. No Korans were burned in Florida, although Tennessee, anxious to reinforce its status as Dumbest State in the Union, managed to have one guy burn two Korans in a barbecue grill while maybe a dozen people watched. So, what have we learned? As is traditional, all the wrong lessons.

The big lesson that seems to be making the rounds is that we all, especially the media, should simply have ignored Terry Jones' provocative stunt. Some examples:

"It’s so clear now that we were had by Jones, the pastor of a teeny, tiny congregation of 50. And an embarrassment among non-nuts in Gainesville." - Margery Eagan, Boston Herald.

"Jones, 58, has enjoyed an almost endless amount of media coverage in recent weeks, despite the fact that he is clearly on the fringe." AOL News.

"I am in the media, but think media gave life to this Florida burning ... and that was reckless." - Chris Cuomo, ABC News.

This is, of course, crazy talk. It's not terribly shocking that the media would drastically inflate the real value of media attention - it's their only currency, after all. But it's hard to see where the public relations victory is for Terry Jones is when, even after everything that's happened, he's still less famous than Snooki, and even more hated. Media attention isn't that impressive. There's more media than ever before, paying more attention to stuff than ever before. Supply and demand dictates that it can't have anywhere near as much value as it used to.

No, as always, the key is context. And the context of the Jones coverage is that we saw something even rarer than Koran-burning - universal criticism. The reason media attention on fringe wingnuts is dangerous is not that they get a platform to espouse their views. It's after they espouse their views, then the media invariably brings on two people. And the first person says the views are awful, and the second person defends the views. That's how crazy gets mainstreamed.

But nobody defended Terry Jones. Even the wingiest of the wingnuts who get to go on national television didn't defend him. The best they could do was try to use a bit of shameless jujitsu to try and transfer the negative opinion of Jones onto the Manhattan Islamic center, in one of the vilest bits of false equivalency I've seen in a while. But not even the people who share Jones' views defended him.

And make no mistake, Terry Jones isn't all that fringe. Pam Gellar, who's as radical as Jones, gets on Fox News from time to time. Newt Gingrich, who's produced a documentary full of essentially the same beliefs as Jones, is still considered a semi-viable presidential candidate. Jones is just a garden-variety bigot, who hates Islam and paints it with as broad a brush as possible. Just pop "Islam is not a religion of peace" into Google and, assuming you haven't eaten recently, peruse the results.

Hell, in many ways, painting Jones as "fringe", talking about the tiny size of his penis (congregation, whatever) and implying that he's not worth covering is the worst thing we could possibly do, because it actually helps make Gellar and Gingrich's hatred mainstream. It draws a clear, sharp line dividing Jones' brand of hate from the rest of us, when it should be drawing a clear, sharp line connecting it.

The other problem with the "just ignore Terry Jones" argument is that it's virtually impossible to ignore anything in 2010. We're all wired, we're all connected, we all have cameras, we can all post tweets. The Arab world had been following this story for weeks before it blew up big here in America. Imagine how it would have looked to them if the media had, as it now claims it should have, just not covered Jones at all? If American media hadn't been filled for a week or two with universal condemnation of Jones' hate?

Someone's always looking, and someone's always talking. At its best, media attention can expose the worst of us for what it is. We needed to show that we aren't all like Jones, and we needed to pretend that a whole bunch of us aren't like Jones, and if the media coverage accomplished anything, it accomplished that.

And one more thing. There are people the media should ignore, but they're almost entirely people who are creations of the media. Say what you like about Terry Jones, but he believed every damn thing he said. He wasn't amping up his beliefs to get attention. Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally got at least as much media attention as Terry Jones' did, but Beck got defended and mainstreamed for beliefs he likely doesn't even believe. You want to talk about irresponsible media attention, start there.