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Media Walks Fine Line in Reporting on Quran-Burning

An obscure Florida pastor’s threat to mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11 by burning Qurans has set off a wave of media soul-searching and plenty of finger pointing. 

Everyone from Gen. David Patraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Vatican and the White House has appealed to the pastor, Terry Jones, to rethink his incendiary stunt - a reaction, Jones says, to plans to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan.

And so the media has been forced to walk the line between jumping on a damaging bandwagon or risk a head-in-the-sand posture on a story that has, very unfortunately, taken on international proportions.

Sadly the former has become the order of the day.

The pastor appeared via satellite from Florida on all three morning news programs Friday and has given hundreds of interviews since he announced “Burn a Koran Day” last month. Earlier this week, Nightline’s Terry Moran traveled to Gainesville, FL, to interview Jones for the ABC program.

The tipping point may have come Thursday when Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates lobbed a call Jones.

Speaking at a news conference Friday morning, President Obama disputed the notion that the administration’s direct intervention may have inadvertently drawn even more attention to Jones.

“I hardly think we’re the ones who elevated this story,” he said. “It is - in the age of the Internet - something that can cause us profound damage around the world, so we’ve got to take it seriously.”

He added that news of the stunt has caused “riots” in Afghanistan “that threaten our young men and women in uniform.”

Indeed, demonstrators attacked a NATO building in Kabul Friday. Eleven people were injured.

Still, there appear to be pockets of restraint.

The Associated Press said Thursday that it will “not distribute images or audio that specifically show Qurans being burned, and will not provide detailed text descriptions of the burning.”

In an internal memo to staff, AP deputy editor Tom Kent wrote:  ”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. AP has often declined to provide images, audio or detailed descriptions of particularly bloody or grisly scenes, such as the sounds and moments of beheadings and shootings, displays of severed heads on pikes and images of hostages who are displayed by hostage-holders in an effort to intimidate their adversaries and advance their cause.”

ABC News executives nixed a plan to pick up the tab to bring Jones to New York. According to TV Newser, an ABC News producer in Florida extended the offer to Jones. That in itself is not unusual. It is customary for news divisions to pick up guests’ travel expenses, especially when an exclusive is in the offing. ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told TV Newser that while the offer was indeed extended, it was rescinded after a discussion with ABC News executives.

At this point there is some confusion about whether Jones is indeed going to go through with his Quran burning. In a news conference Thursday he said he had decided to cancel “after reaching a deal to stop the construction of an Islamic center near Ground Zero.”  But Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam spearheading the center, said no such deal had been reached and he had not even spoken with Jones.

“We are not going to toy with our religion or any other,” Rauf said in a statement. “Nor are we going to barter. We are here to extend our hands to build peace and harmony.”