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Fox draws the line on pastor

Fox News, which often gets criticized for excessive coverage of minor scandals, took the journalistic high road this week.

While the tale of the Koran-hating pastor spread like wildfire across the media landscape, Fox deliberately doused the drama by playing it down. The network also declared Thursday that it would not provide footage of Terry Jones's planned Koran bonfire this weekend if it happened -- and others followed suit.

This was no accident. Fox Senior Vice President Michael Clemente says he decided earlier in the week that "here's a guy with 50 people in his parish and he's just off a little bit. ... Let's just not go crazy with something that seems like a very narrow bit of information about a very narrow guy. It just doesn't deserve more than the little bit of airtime we tried to give it."

Clemente, who cleared the approach with Chairman Roger Ailes, says Fox had to adjust its coverage as administration officials weighed in on the Florida pastor and reaction spread to other countries. Still, he says, his bottom line was "let's not pour gasoline on the fire."

In the past, Fox has pounded away at such stories as a voter-intimidation case against two New Black Panther Party members and missteps by then-White House official Van Jones. Bill O'Reilly has apologized for jumping the gun on a deceptively edited videotape of Shirley Sherrod. And if Jones had been a loony liberal, it's hard to imagine that O'Reilly and Sean Hannity would not have gone after him.

But O'Reilly and Hannity had little to say about the Koran-hating crusader. Clemente had appealed to Bill Shine, who oversees prime-time programming, not to go overboard, although the hosts made their own decisions. Clemente also spoke to executives working with Fox's local stations, radio network and Web operation to keep everyone on board.

When the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik reported at 2:16 Thursday that Fox would show no pictures of the planned Koran-burning in Gainesville, it was the only network taking that position. The others had told TV Newser that they would cover it like any other news story, with no hint that the footage might be withheld. The only other major news organization promising not to transmit pictures of the proposed bonfire was the Associated Press.

The New York Times this morning credited both CNN and Fox as refusing to air the images of such a burning. CNN's position came as a surprise.

CNN spokeswoman Bridget Leininger said that top executives met at 2:30 Thursday and settled on the policy around 5 p.m. Nothing was sent out to reporters as Jones was briefly calling off the planned stunt, but the network's stance was briefly mentioned on "The Situation Room," she said. "You could call it an evolving position."

The media wound up giving huge coverage to an obscure pastor even as many commentators assailed him. (The Washington Post did not mention the story until Wednesday). He was on the ABC, CBS and NBC morning shows today, as well as MSNBC's "Morning Joe" (where Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham told him that "The central message of the New Testament is forgiveness" before the pastor was dismissed without saying a word). ABC's Jake Tapper, in a question at President Obama's news conference, referred to Jones as a "fringe" character.

But Fox, this time at least, showed the most restraint from the start. "There have been plenty of hostage tapes that people have wanted shown -- sometimes we have and sometimes we haven't," Clemente said. "You pick and choose what's important. ... If some people felt they had to go somewhere else to get it, so be it."

By Howard Kurtz  |  September 10, 2010; 2:57 PM ET
Categories:  Latest stories , Top story  
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NEVER thought I'd say this, but way to go, Fox! (And CNN, of course.) Maybe there is some faint hope for our country, yet...

Posted by: DCSteve1 | September 10, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

I agree that Fox should be congratulated for showing restraint - and then roundly condemned for their role in creating and inciting wingnuts like this.

Posted by: LincolnX | September 10, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Oh, Howard. This is so sad.

Let's see here - Fox and it's hijacked Far Right Christian alliances have not changed their tune towards Islam, or anything else. This idiot Jones was so far off the scale that he flew off the handle and landed full-circle right in the faces of the Republicans who realized they had become the absurdists.

And they cut this dumb idiot loose not because of any aspirations to the "journalistic high road" - you gotta check your meds if you think they even have a map to that stretch of pavement.

This was nothing more than Republican opportunism - in the face of how many of the most media-saturated members of Congress and the Senate who couldn't make a substantive stand against Terry Jones if it would have saved a dangling toddler from the outstretched arms of Osama Bin Laden.

Come on. This was nothing more than "oh, crap, this clown is really off the rails and he's going to screw up our whole train if we don't throw him under it" -

Journalistic high road?

Some day Murdoch, Fox, and his AM radio allies will accept that in order to claim the "high road" that they must actually be standing on it at some time.

This has not been any such occasion.

I'm saddened that you feel they did.

You go catch Terry Jones off camera, and other than nursing the wound he got on his ****** after he snagged it in his fly, we're going to get cell phone videos and testimony from anyone who visits his church in the future that this man's mentality has not wavered; the fact that Fox walked away from them is that they are full up with the crazy and this dumb clown would have tipped over their boat for sure if riots, fires, and murders all over the world had resulted from his falsely-pious lunacy.

The day Fox actually takes the "journalistic high road" they won't be Fox and they'll lose all their loyal viewers.

Posted by: snafubar | September 10, 2010 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Once again, the media gets even this wrong. But we're so used to that now. This was no show of restraint. It is a running for cover, a protecting Fox's tail. On this one, Fox could not cover the pastor. They helped incite him. Giving him coverage would allow too many smart people to draw the line between stoking islamaphobia with their Park51 rabble-rousing and Rush Limbaugh's high school classmate. So no, they couldn't touch what they made. Too many people would figure it out.

Posted by: kravitzkravitz | September 10, 2010 8:29 PM | Report abuse

"The central message of the New Testament is____." Just fill in the blank, and start yourself a new denomination.

Posted by: johnnormansp | September 10, 2010 11:14 PM | Report abuse

You just couldn't congratulate FOXNews without criticizing them all throughout your article, could you Howie?!
The Black Panther vote intimidation thing (and others) really is a story. Just imagine something like this happening in Mississippi with white people holding the clubs and spewing out racial hatred at black voters - the lame stream media would be covering it ad nauseum every day!

Posted by: MissButterfly | September 11, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Considering that Fox is among the highest rated of all basic cable channels in the country, it seems that a great many Americans are what the left describes as "far right Christians". Good

Posted by: thebink | September 11, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Oh good grief! "missteps by then-White House official Van Jones"?? You have to be kidding. The guy on numerous occasions revealed himself for what he was -- a far left communist bent on pushing a radical redistributionist agenda. These were no mistepps -- they were what he really was.

Why, oh why cannot columnists do some basic thinking and research?

Posted by: Chuckie3 | September 11, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Isn't it obvious that Fox downplayed this story because it revealed the nuttiness of its own Islamophobic stance? Whether or not the story deserved coverage, Fox's decision was entirely political and self-serving, and does not deserve anyone's congratulations.

Posted by: sally_york | September 11, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Minor stories? That's debatable. Just because your left wing friends thinks something is minor does not make it so.

Why would it be noteworthy for FOX to not be hyping this story? Are you insinuating that this is a story a conservative would be more inclined to want to hear about? Conservatives do NOT burn holy books or flags. That's the left's department.

Posted by: TheLastBrainLeft | September 11, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

ChickaBOOMer: The Holy Land

Posted by: StewartIII | September 11, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Minor stories? That's debatable. Just because your left wing friends thinks something is minor does not make it so.

Why would it be noteworthy for FOX to not be hyping this story? Are you insinuating that this is a story a conservative would be more inclined to want to hear about? Conservatives do NOT burn holy books or flags. That's the left's department.

Posted by: TheLastBrainLeft | September 11, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

There were no missteps by Van Jones. He got screwed, and this Administration let him go without a respectable fight. The guy's an inspiring leader and deserves much more support than he got in the face of the Fox fear machine.

Fox "News" and its audience live for gossip and innuendo and have nothing substantial to offer this country. Spare me the "journalistic high road" talk about them not covering the crazies that they create. It's called "willfully ignoring the outcomes of your actions"...not taking the high road.

Posted by: slag | September 11, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

You folks need to wake up and investigate a little bit. Fox News is nothing more than hypocritical.

Fox News whose parent company, the Rupert Murdoch controlled News Corporation, has as its second largest shareholder Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

There ya go...Fox Islam roots. Of COURSE they're going to back off this story, but not for the naive reasons you think.

Posted by: Bebb | September 11, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

Fox saying it doesn't want a big story to be big doesn't mean it's not big, and in fact burning the books would be huge. This "ignore the story so it'll go away" PR ploy can work once, maybe twice. The whole idea has been that Fox is showing its audience what the other media doesn't want to show. They'll be crazy to give that up.

Posted by: kls1 | September 11, 2010 10:18 PM | Report abuse

Fox doesn't deserve praise, they should be scorned. They have been the main component in the constant fear and hate mongering - the nbpp nontroversy, acorn, shirley sherrod, stoking the AZ immigration issue and the islamic community center issue - all with one purpose to fuel fear and hate before the election. Their partnership with the likes of liz cheney and her organizations, frank gaffney, pam geller and newt gingrich - the birtherism nonsense, the president is a muslim bull crap - it's all deliberately ratcheting up the hate, fueling the feal of "the other" all to keep their audience cowering in fear and motivated by hate. They don't deserve praise for this action, they deserve scorn for their pathetic tactics.

Posted by: JilliB | September 12, 2010 6:21 AM | Report abuse

Fox News should be congratulated for showing maturity and foresight, when it was sorely needed

Posted by: Kingofkings1 | September 12, 2010 7:00 AM | Report abuse

Fox had no intention of giving 24/7 attention to a Frankenstein its idealogy created - especially mere weeks before midterm elections. High road? Under the porch is more like it.

Posted by: htimothyjones1 | September 12, 2010 7:05 AM | Report abuse

So why didn't Fox News show the same restraint with the two (2) New Black Panther knuckleheads whose antics arguably had no effect on anyone, vs. this story which, had the pastor gone through with his threat, would have had (and did have) major international implications?

I think Kurtz hit it on the head: Had this guy been a "far left looney" (to use a favorite slur of the right), Fox would have been all over it like a cheap suit.

Posted by: MidwaySailor76 | September 12, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

"The network also declared Thursday that it would not provide footage"

I think the keyword here is 'provide'. You can bet that a Fox reporter would have been there to cheer Mr. Jones on, while he's burning books. Fox didn't say that there would be no reporters there---just that they would not 'provide' footage of the event.

Fox did allow their darlin' Sarah to get media attention when she put in her unsolicited unwanted 'opinion' of Mr. Jones' event. Fox has provided plenty of footage of Sarah Palin doing and saying loony things.

Posted by: momof20yo | September 12, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

Fox realized early on that it would look foolish and be condemned for featuring this turkey. Enlightened self-interest, not high principle. But..., does it matter much why Fox did the right thing, for once?

Posted by: frodot | September 12, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

I wouldn't call this the high road . Fox understood correctly that this event, if it happened, would embarrass its opinion purveyors (Hannity in particular, given the parade of Islamophobes he hosts) so management decided to protect them from any further condemnation. Sounds more like the stopped clock that tells the correct time twice a day.

Posted by: DaveinNorthridge | September 12, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Cmon Howard, what a ludicrous and disappointing post! If this were, say, a fringe Gay atheist burning Bibles, Fox would be covering it like it was World War III. Fox's judgment was that the right wing wacko has no RIGHT WING PROPAGANDA VALUE. The thought that Fox even knows what "journalistic high road" means is utterly laughable.

Posted by: tboyer33 | September 12, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Come on, let’s get real. Pastor Jones was a reaction to the over the top anti-Islamic rhetoric that spews from Fox News and Hate Radio every day of every week. Fox downplayed Jones because he was an embarrassment to them, not because Fox suddenly turned professional. Fox also plays down or ignores every right wing lunatic that gets hopped up on Beck or overdoses on Hannity and goes hunting for liberals or guns down a cop. It’s not responsible journalism; it’s an attempt to hide their nefarious handiwork.

Posted by: codexjust1 | September 12, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

LincolnX and snaufubar are exactly right - this came too close for comfort, to close to Beck - they had to shut it out.

Dam Rubert Murdoch and Roger Ailes to everlasting hell for what they have done to this country.

Posted by: edismae | September 12, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Why don't you write about Associated Press that gave instructions to all reporters that the Koran burning would not be covered by words or pictures.

Isn't that a supression of news?

What right does any news person have to protection of the First Amendment if this is how they operate?

This attitude is a direct conflict with our right to know and shame on any reporters that buckled under to AP.

The AP doctored photos of the Isrealis defending themselves against ships breaking their embargo.

AP instructed reporters not to call that filty thing downtown NYC a mosque but rather a cultural center - like a islamic YMCA.

And AP included the thought to reporters to be sure not to say it was at Ground Zero but just in the neighborhood.

AP is terribly biased pro Islam. Keep that in mind as you read about the lack of coverage of certain news.

Posted by: mlemac | September 12, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

bebb, you are right. I was wrong. I forgot about Rupert's friend the prince.

Posted by: edismae | September 12, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

bebb, you are right. I was wrong. I forgot about Rupert's friend the prince.

Posted by: edismae | September 12, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Press is there to vet the Country, not run the Country.

Press in these events forgets that the USA loves it's nutty free people.
We are a place where witches in Wiccan, book burners, bra burners, the Raelians running around naked or the spa attire wardrobes of Popes and bishops or Muslims, is regarded by the many as our nutty people.
The book burner has as much right to freee speech as the rest of our nutty people do.
The dangerous people are apparently seen as Depends pooper Gates, who failed in his task to defend and protect the Constitutional right of this preacher to be any kind of religious idiot he wants to.

Senile and simple minded Gates apparently forgets that blood from the book burning man's flock lays on battle fields that spilled leeching through the USA uniforms, so that he has a free right to be the nutty religious guy.

It seems the USA's people sees Gates as the prosecutable offender now.

Posted by: dottydo | September 12, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Let's give credit to Fox News and assume that at least part of their decision was due to journalistic ethics. But it is quite true that they would not have donwplayed this story if it made liberal nuts, rather than conservative nuts, look bad. Does anyone really doubt that?

Posted by: Sutter | September 12, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

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