Media Storm, Local Edition

What Is News And What Is Not: When Local Reporters Go GaGa for “Media Events”

by Dave Zornow

Nyack, Nov 19, 2010 — A religious hurricane forecast to hit Nyack, NY last weekend changed course at the last minute, allowing a high school production of The Laramie Project to take the stage with no worries about religious fundamentalists disrupting the play.

But to end the story there would be to miss “a teachable moment” about the averted storm – and why some forecasters predicted it.

The Laramie Project is a play about community reaction to the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student in Laramie, Wyoming. The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas has been picketing productions of the play throughout the country to spread its belief that every tragedy in the world is related to homosexuality.

For students of the media, religious fundamentalists — and students of all ages — here’s a study guide which looks at some of the myths and assumptions about the protest that didn’t happen.

1. As reported on their Website, The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas was hell-bent on coming to  this suburban NYC community to protest a high school production of The Laramie Project and spread their message of intolerance towards homosexuals, Roman Catholics, Islam, Jews, Methodists, Mormons, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians other Baptists and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

Actually, it was never entirely clear that they were coming at all. To wit:

A local parents’ group that supports theater productions made a conscious decision not to counter protest and ignore WBC members if they appeared. It was only after local media owned by AOL and Gannett publicized their presence that it because widely known. The story was also subsequently picked up by WCBS-TV.

“No event or condition is inherently news,” says Scott Bonn, author and associate professor of sociology at Drew University. “It only becomes news because someone has the power and ability to say so and, generally, that person has both a political and profit-driven agenda, not the least of which is to entice an audience and sell advertising.”

Bonn, who previously worked at MTV as a sales and marketing executive, says news making is inherently amoral and it will cover and promote anything that serves its self-interest. “The news media often become passive co-conspirators in spreading public panics such as the bird flu and the threat from Iraq that was alleged by the G.W. Bush administration,” Bonn adds.

2. 21st Century mass media lets religious fundamentalists spread their message in ways never before possible.

Mass media has a long history of spreading religious intolerance. Father Charles Coughlin used radio in the 1930’s to reach millions of radio listeners with anti-Semitic message broadcasts. Although sophisticated in their use of media, sociologists say the Westboro Baptist Church has little in common with previous, more polished hate mongers. “Coughlin, in a totally different era, was successful and credentialed,” says Gerald Marwell, a professor of sociology at New York University.

By comparison, Marwell says Fred Phelps, the leader of the WBC is neither. “Coughlin had his own broadcasts and millions of followers.“ Marwell says that with the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, anti-semitism was a very important issue. Because the country is moving away from the positions advocated by the Westboro Baptist Church, Marwell adds that Phelps is a just a side-show, “Only the media pay him any attention. The best response to Phelps is laughter and dismissal.”

3. The Westboro Baptist Church is only doing this for the money.

Not true, says Baylor University’s Christopher Bader, an associate professor of sociology who has studied the Westboro Baptist Church extensively. “First, their motivations are primarily religious. They believe very strongly and unanimously in a God that is both “hands on” with the world and extremely judgmental of it,” he says. Although Bader describes the group as ambulance chasers, it’s because they are always looking for situations that will get the most attention. “It is not by accident that they engage in outrageous antics. They see themselves as God’s elect who must warn others.”

“The Phelps’ seem to be driven by a desire for attention. They will take negative attention over inattention,” says Deana Pollard-Sacks, a law professor at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. ”The public did not seem interested in the Phelps’ anti-gay rhetoric, so the Phelps’ resorted to extreme personal attacks against fallen soldiers and their surviving family members to garner media attention for themselves.” Pollard-Sacks says that the Westboro Baptist Church has been unable to attract public support for their anti-gay agenda. “The only reason they are getting any attention is because the media are giving it to them,” she says.

Bader says Westboro’s annual travel budget, estimated to be about $200,000, comes from multiple sources. He says that many church members hold regular jobs working as nurses, working in law offices and working as computer programmers and developers. “They also make significant money from winning lawsuits,” Bader notes. “Since they defend themselves, but can charge for their time, when they win a lawsuit in jurisdictions where the ‘loser’ has to pay legal expenses, they make a lot of money.”

4. Nothing good comes out of hate.

In this rare case, that isn’t quite true. Students involved in Nyack’s production of The Laramie Project say the publicity has sparked interest from peers who previously were not interested in either the arts or in talking about tolerance. According to one participant, kids are googling the play and the WBC and are forming their own opinions.

5. If it’s in the paper, it’s news.

The 20/20 hindsight of the run up to the Iraq War shows that reporting by a NY Times reporter tipped the scales for mass media in accepting the credibility of the Bush Administrations’ WMD myth. The public generally believes that news sources are motivated to report the news; but anyone who has ever worked in a news room knows that the definition of news is truly in the eye of the beholder. Journalists, more often than not, are motivated by the fear of “getting beat” on a story regardless of whether or not a story idea meets any vague criteria for being “news.”

Objectively speaking, is it news that six people in a bus with Kansas plates come to a town without any local support and hold up attention getting signs purely to attract the attention of the local press? Shouldn’t local reporters have some a built in “Media Manipulation” alarm for these kinds of incidents? Maybe — but more often than not — they don’t.

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