In the decade since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, some academics and media-watchers have routinely accused the U. S. media of "Islamophobia." Reporters have been blamed for a disproportionate overemphasis on Islamic terrorism and for framing Islam primarily in a context of danger and conflict (Abrahamian, 2003; Husain & Rosenbaum, 2004). But I maintain that the real instigators of Islamophobia (see Esposito, 2011) in the U. S. media were not mainstream journalists. I intend to show how ultra-conservative political bloggers and social media activists were successful in imposing their own agenda on mainstream U. S. media by "priming" the dialogue of media professionals. Traditional journalists have become part of the intended audience for online opinion-makers, and I believe they are susceptible to the internalization of tailor-made concepts and discursive frameworks that they encounter while researching stories online.
I will demonstrate this hypothesis with two specific news stories, both widely covered in the U. S. I will show where mainstream journalists ceded their professional ethic of responsible agenda-setting and framing to the dictates of online activists.
This phenomenon of online media activism came to the surface in the lead-up to the 9th anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks in 2010, when two minor stories about Islam in the U. S. combined to ignite a nation-wide explosion of anti-Islamic sentiment. In hindsight, some mainstream journalists acknowledged that they got carried away, and that their reporting of these stories was inaccurate (Gladstone, 2010; McDermott, 2010). The two intertwined stories that I focus on made headlines in the summer of 2010. The first was the planned construction of an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan not far from the site formerly occupied by the World Trade Center (known as Park51 or the "ground-zero mosque"). The second was the Quran-burning plans of Pastor Terry Jones, the leader of a small, non-denominational Christian church of about 30 members in Gainesville, Florida. Neither of these stories initially received a great deal of media coverage, but as September drew near, commentators in the political blogosphere and other players (such as conservative radio talk-show hosts) triggered an Islamophobic explosion in the mainstream media. Looking back on these events, many mainstream journalists expressed perplexity and dismay about their own role in what investigative reporter Chuck Lewis described as a classic "media circus" (personal interview, January 31, 2011).
Several years earlier, researchers for the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) identified online activists as a primary source of anti-Muslim sentiment:
Some of the harshest Muslim-bashing can be found on the right-wing blogosphere and on websites that link to these blogs . . . . The Islamophobia generated in these backwaters finds its way into mainstream, accessing a national platform and audience through such tributaries as the cable TV and radio shows hosted by Fox News’ Sean Hannity and CNN Headline News’ Glenn Beck (FAIR, 2008, p. 6)
The Influences on Media Coverage
Little research has been done on the way in which journalists’ own sources of information affect their agenda-setting ("what to think about") and priming ("how to think") logic. From general studies of the influences on news selection and media content (Gans, 1979; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Scheufele, 1999), we can suggest at least three potential sources of influence on journalists:
1. The reporter’s training and personal commitment to actively constructing frames and making sense of the incoming information.
2. The political orientation of the medium/publication where the journalist works. Gans (1979) referred to these structural influences as "organizational routines."
3. External sources of influence such as political actors, authorities, interest groups, and other elites. Gans pointed out that such agents are often skillful at encouraging journalists to convey a desired image or sound bite to the media audience (1979, pp. 79, 116).
It is in this third category that the influence of new-media activists should be located. Like most busy people, journalists have a tendency to be "cognitive misers"—that is, they frequently rely on simple and time-efficient strategies when evaluating information and making decisions. Rather than critically evaluating each new piece of information, it is common, perhaps even necessary, for reporters to conserve cognitive energy by relying on tempting (even if possibly "scripted" by biased parties) available schemas, scripts, and other knowledge structures to frame incoming stories.
I believe that mainstream journalists, just like their audiences, can be vulnerable to agenda-setting and priming by others. While their training should imbue professional journalists with a certain degree of conscious resistance against these effects, the pressures of their profession can cause lapses. This is especially true when journalists are not fully aware of the extent to which they themselves are the target audience of the information scripts that they are accessing.
In the two news stories examined here, the sound bites, branding, and framing produced in the ultra-conservative online political blogosphere were consistently re-produced in mainstream media.
Agenda-setting, or, "What to Think About"
Mainstream journalists initially did not view the planned construction of the Park51 center or the activities of Pastor Jones as high priorities on the lists of stories that they wanted to cover. For example, even in the local press Pastor Jones was considered a non-starter. As Mike Wilson, the managing editor of Florida’s St. Petersburg Times explained, “We knew that a small-time minister in Gainesville was planning to burn copies of the Quran, but we didn’t think it was worth a story” (Deggans, 2010). Even after the event became a national obsession, many journalists continued to be puzzled at how this obscure act of bigotry had turned into one of the central news stories of the day. Former National Public Radio Ombudsman Alicia Shephard observed that, although Pastor Jones’s initial announcement was greeted by a complete lack of interest from the press, at some point there were suddenly "more journalists covering the story than he [Jones] had followers in his church" (personal telephone interview, March 18th, 2011). In a similar vein, award-winning investigative journalist and former ABC/CBS newsroom producer Chuck Lewis stated that the extremely small-scale protests against the Park51 center were "a complete lunacy in terms of media coverage . . . [an] obsession about what was basically a non-event" (personal interview, January 31, 2011).
So how did these non-events come to be major stories? The evidence indicates that the agenda-setting did not take place in traditional newsrooms but was rather imposed from outside. Opposition to the Park51 project originated to a large extent with the online activities of ultra-conservative blogger and political activist Pamela Geller, who launched a "Stop the 9/11 Mosque" campaign on her Web site starting in May of 2010. Geller presented a view of Islam as inherently violent and aggressive, and she described the planned Islamic community center (which was in fact not a mosque and was not located at "ground zero") as a "manifestation of Islamic domination and expansionism" (Geller, 2010a). She developed her campaign by posting on conservative blogs and by employing online media advocacy (e.g., Geller, 2010b). Her Islamophobic narrative about the Park51 center was picked up by other conservative bloggers, and the story began to “go viral” through social media networks. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, during the summer of 2010 the story became a central topic in the blogosphere, while continuing to be largely ignored by the mainstream media (Pew, 2011).
It was only after this narrative had been well-established on the electronic fringes that it made the jump into the mainstream media. On August 16, Sean Hannity, a popular conservative radio talk-show host who also works for Fox News, devoted most of his program to the topic of the Park51 center, which he referred to as the "August surprise." In the wake of Hannity’s legitimization of the narrative, the story finally exploded onto the national stage. Richard Benedetto, a former White House correspondent and USA Today columnist, described how popular conservative talk shows can act as bridgeheads for stories emerging from the radical fringe:
Shows such as the Sean Hannity Show on Fox . . . are not news shows—it’s opinion—but when we [mainstream journalists] hear something is kind of hot on the opinion media, editors at news organizations will say, "hey, they are talking about something, why don’t you follow it up?" So the fact is, that they [opinionated talk-show hosts] might be influencing us in the news media to go out and follow whatever line is being pushed at that particular time (personal interview, February 7, 2011).
By the time that the narrative surrounding the Park51 center caught the attention of mainstream journalists, it had been reverberating for some months in an online "echo chamber"—a relatively closed forum in which one purveyor of information will make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again (often in an exaggerated or otherwise distorted form) until most of those within the echo chamber assume that some variation of the story is true (Jamieson & Cappella, 2008). Therefore, when mainstream journalists finally did turn their attention to this story, they encountered a well-established meme and framing structure in which significant components of the Park51 story had already been pre-arranged by the online media activists who initiated it.
A similar pattern can be seen in the trajectory of the story about the Quran-burning plans of Pastor Terry Jones. As the Park51 narrative percolated through the Internet during the month of July, it came to the attention of Jones, who asserted in a Twitter message that, in protest of Park51, he would burn a Quran and "bring awareness to the dangers of Islam." Not content to announce his plan through Twitter alone, Pastor Jones created an "International Burn a Koran Day" Facebook group and posted videos on YouTube to get his Islamophobic message across (Euro-islam.info, 2010). Although the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties organization, the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), issued a news release to protest these events (Hagey, 2010), the Florida story received almost no media coverage until Pastor Jones’s plans began to be widely discussed in the conservative blogosphere.
As with the Park51 story, the Quran-burning story broke into the mainstream media all at once, with articles appearing in the Religion News Service, the Egypt Daily News, the Guardian, the Associated Press, and al-Arabiya. I have not been able to identify a single, specific trigger for this coverage, but it is clear that the coverage was not a response to Pastor Jones’s original announcement, nor to the counter press release of CAIR, but rather to the later development of the story within conservative blogs and social media. An editor for the Religion News Service, one of the first mainstream outlets to cover the story, stated that the primary interest that sparked their coverage was not the CAIR release but rather their learning—via another unnamed outlet—about the skyrocketing membership of Jones’s "Burn a Koran Day" Facebook page (Hagey, 2010). As with Pamela Geller’s active promotion of her views in the Park51 story, the carefully orchestrated social-media strategy of Pastor Jones seems to have laid the groundwork for his entry into the dynamic echo chamber of the ultra-conservative blogosphere (e.g. "Gang-bang the Koran," "Koran as a Doormat," "Koran Litter-Box Scoop," "How to Pump a Koran Full of Buckshot," etc.) and from there into the mainstream media.
It is a significant component of this saga that a news release from CAIR, the largest Muslim advocacy organization in the U. S., did not generate a ripple of interest, whereas the reverberations from the Internet echo chamber ultimately led to a lively story. Nihad Awad, the executive director and co-founder of CAIR, put it this way:
We are talking [to the media], but they are not hearing us. Some media make a conscious decision not to show what the Muslim community is doing. I remember after the attacks of 9/11 we immediately condemned it. We sent it [a press release] to about forty thousand media outlets via e-mail and fax. But our message wasn’t picked up (personal interview, February 8, 2011)
It is equally worth mentioning that the mainstream media did not respond in a frenzy to similar acts of isolated bigotry that have been documented on YouTube both before and after the announcements of Pastor Jones, but these stories did not become significant in the conservative blogosphere. It seems clear that in both cases—the Park51 protest and the actions of Pastor Jones—mainstream journalists were passively accepting an agenda that was set by new-media activists who apparently were able to dictate to reporters which stories were worth talking about.
Priming, or, "How to Think"
In their coverage of these two stories, mainstream journalists did not merely succumb to the agenda-setting by online activists that dictated that the stories should be discussed. They also perpetuated the scripts and framing mechanisms in the online blogosphere that dictated how the stories should be discussed. Exhibiting the symptoms of "cognitive miserliness" described earlier, most mainstream journalists simply adopted the Islamophobic frames of reference that they encountered in the blogosphere when they researched these ready-made stories. The label of the "ground zero mosque" is a good illustration of this mechanism. This term was initially coined in the campaign launched by ultra-conservative activists, and it was repeated ad nauseam in right-wing blogs. However, the Park51 project was not to build a mosque in any recognizable sense of the word. The activists who promoted this characterization focused narrowly on the existence of a single prayer room in the proposed multifunctional complex that was to include exercise facilities, a theater, a bookstore, an art studio, conference rooms, and a swimming pool. Perhaps more importantly, the term implies that the Islamic community center is slated for construction on the emotionally charged and hallowed "ground zero" where the Twin Towers collapsed. In reality, the proposed construction site is two large city blocks away and around a corner—not even within eyesight of the former World Trade Center (Sledge, 2010).
This inaccurate branding of the project was widely adopted in the mainstream media. Instead of using the term "community center" or the current or previous official building names ("Park51" or "Cordoba House"), journalists somehow came to regard the phrase "ground zero mosque" as an acceptable term to propagate in the national discourse. While a few media outlets and individual reporters refrained from using the misleading characterization, most did not. It is quite remarkable that even media outlets that certainly are not Islamophobic adopted the "ground zero mosque" branding in the days after the story blossomed. For example, journalists reporting in the English-language version of the Arabic news network al-Jazeera occasionally used this term (al-Jazeera, 2010).
It is important to note that even those reporters who wrote arguments against the labeling of Park51 acted to legitimize the debate. They brought into discussion—even if just to refute—the Islamophobic idea that a mosque is a problematic space and that Islam as a whole was somehow responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center. The real success of conservative media activists was the airtime given to these views and the association of the mosque with an aura of fear. Why does it matter whether or not Park51 is a mosque—and why would a mosque near “ground zero” dishonor the victims of the 9/11 attacks, some of whom were Muslims? When mainstream reporters adopted the framework of this story they internalized and reproduced many existing basic cognitive scripts. In the wake of the Park51 coverage, the image of the mosque has been established in the public eye as a new “media icon” (Bennett & Lawrence, 1995), a locus of danger and fear, tinged with connotations of terroristic activities. While the opinions that were reported about the Park51 project were quite varied, the success of this discursive framing, or priming, was a profound triumph for Islamophobic activists.
Also, radical conservative activists were given opportunities to present their narratives in to more of the general public. An extensive interview with anti-Park51 Pamela Geller in The New York Times (Bernard & Feuer, 2010) not only provided a free platform for bigoted rhetoric, but also legitimized radical conservatives as important power players and key figures in the national discourse. While Geller was frequently criticized for her arguments and the content of her blog, her sensational premises often served as the basic narrative foundation of the story. For example, on September 26, 2010, Geller appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes program. She was introduced as "the Islamic Center’s most ardent opponent" whose "political far-right blog mixes news, opinion, and conspiracy theories." Geller’s conspiracy theories were at the core of most of the questions that were posed, during the same program, to Park51 organizers Faisal Raouf and Sheriff al-Gamal. During this interview, Raouf and al-Gamal were challenged to counter the allegations of the project being located at "ground zero," they were encouraged to explain that the so-called mosque was really a prayer space that comprised only a small portion of the building, and they were called upon to refute allegations of the supposedly extremist Islamic character of the project’s proponents. But the interviewer emphasized that al-Gamal, who had been called an Islamic supremacist in the conservative blogosphere, was born to a Catholic Polish mother and an Egyptian father, married a Christian woman, and had previously been a member of the Jewish community center on the west side of Manhattan. His enjoyment of the Jewish community center, it was explained, was the source of his inspiration to develop an Islamic facility with the same recreational, social, and fraternal inter-faith character.
Although well-intended and trying to serve the truth, the 60 Minutes interviewer allowed radical bigotry to frame the discussion throughout this entire program. The Islamic center supporters were never allowed a chance to present their concerns or to engage in dialogue, because they had to constantly defend themselves from radical "smearcasting" (FAIR, 2008). Even when they may have thought they were correcting the untruths promoted by Geller and other conservative bloggers they were actually supporting the anti-Islam activists’ agenda.
It is common for journalists to adopt, in a considered fashion, framing and sound bites used by professional interest groups or political actors, and to incorporate moderate and temporary framing into their coverage of an issue or event (Scheufele, 1999). However, I argue that it is not acceptable professional practice to allow framing grounded in hatred and bigotry to fully monopolize the parameters of media discourse. One of the mistakes made by the mainstream journalists who became caught up in the snowballing Islamophobia of these two stories was in not recognizing the extent to which their radical conservative sources should be regarded as sophisticated media content entrepreneurs. By accepting the terminology, branding, conceptual outlooks, and discursive parameters that they encountered when interacting with these activists, journalists passively and uncritically forfeited their ethical responsibilities. They allowed the framing of these stories to be taken out of their hands by not proactively establishing their own neutral framework in which a discussion could take place.
Journalists’ Awakening in the Aftermath of the Coverage
Some journalists did try to act critically and ethically during the build-up of the two stories. Editors at Associated Press, for example, explicitly rejected branding the Park51 project as the "ground zero mosque," and CNN made it clear that they would not cover the burning of the Quran if Pastor Jones decided to carry out his threats. By recognizing that they had gotten caught up in a "media circus" and that their platforms had been hijacked by extremists, some individuals and organizations acted in the best interest of their profession. For the most part, however, journalists were unwilling or unable to recognize what was happening, and this reluctance continued even after the stories began to fade out.
The interaction between traditional media and new media has become very powerful, and this trend is not likely to change. A lack of self-reflection on the role of mainstream journalists in the increasingly complex information landscape of the 21st century will have serious repercussions. Unless media professionals can install formal and effective filters between "what is out there" (content in the blogosphere and other new-media activism) and 'what is relevant news," they, and we, are in trouble. Not installing such filters is likely to result in non-relevant, distorted news content that—after simmering or percolating on the Internet—will be pushed onto the mainstream media stage by activists who are not bound by traditional journalistic ethics.
As of this writing, roughly a year after these stories began to explode onto the mainstream media scene, the Islamophobic protagonists have returned to the shadows. Journalists have lost interest in Terry Jones’s rants, and the Park51 community center will go ahead as planned. However, despite the mainstream media’s mea culpa apologies for its role, the repercussions of the coverage continue to be tangible, both in the national discourse and in the perception of America abroad.
This leaves us with the question of whether or not mainstream media professionals have learned an important lesson. Will they be savvy enough keep their independence the next time a story is triggered from the outlying blogosphere, radio talk shows, and social media networks, or will they surf again on the waves of extremism?