Reverend Campfire, Media Coverage, and the Social Fabric

I’m telling you: This job never gets boring.

Every day offers some new and provocative illustration of the intricate and fascinating role that media and culture play in both weaving and tearing away at our fragile social fabric.

This week’s example came like clockwork, ripe for analysis by all who watch the social parade and all the passing wackos, issues, provocateurs, and even — when we least expect it — occasional voices of reason and clarity.

This week it’s the lunacy of one profoundly disrespectful and incoherent member of the clergy (self-proclaimed) who, gleeful at what is likely the first time anyone other than his dentist has paid attention to the bile coming out of his mouth, is threatening to burn a copy of the holy text of a major world religion.

Look, I know this is a world in which the World Wrestling Federation seems to be the arbiter of rules for civil discourse. Maybe we should simply ignore this nonsense, however hateful. Yet this is a fragile historical moment in which a vile threat by a vile man has found its way into the midst of a social context marked by fear, loathing, raging Islamophobia, and a backdrop of what the eminent Columbia historian Richard Hofstadter once perceptively called ” the paranoid style in American politics.”

And, of course, the whole hateful spectacle is being reported and re-reported by a mass media that, whatever you think of the coverage, has quite correctly gauged the zeitgeist as to the newsworthiness of it all. People do want to hear about Reverend Campfire. The direct intervention of both the President and Secretary of Defense has only heated up the whole noxious brew and made it an even more legitimate news topic.

Which leads to one of the iconic and ultimately unanswerable questions that seems to always come up in media studies: Does all the media scrutiny fuel the frenzy? Or is the frenzy itself a legitimate news topic?

The easy part is the “who causes it?” question. In a complex and crowded 24-hour digital information environment, no one culprit is an easy target. All sorts of individuals and institutions –political, media, corporate — are acting simultaneously, interacting with one another, struggling to promote an image of themselves and their views that supports their interests and agenda. To point to any institution as primarily culpable for a momentary frenzy or panic is to try to make the richly complex, multi-variate process of social and organizational behavior fit into a simple cause and effect model.

You may wish the media had ignored Reverend Campfire and his book-burning threats, and you make think that ignoring him would have ended the whole shebang. But to dismiss this as primarily a media-constructed spectacle is to engage in that great American past time of latching onto the nearest reductionist answer to our latest vexing question.

Like it or not (and I don’t), this is a legitimate news story, deserves media scrutiny, and even reveals a fundamental truth about free society: The social fabric, even when vigilantly supported and protected by constitutionally guaranteed rights and liberties, is always just one rip away from serious damage by a kook like Reverend Campfire.

And that damage can be caused by one, perverse loony-tune who truly seems to be enjoying his ability to elicit a great big national squirm.

Believe me, I’m more than sick of hearing about Reverend Campfire and his three-ring hate-fest.

But maybe the dues we owe for the protection of free expression include being forced to listen to one slightly imbalanced exhibitionist and then having to watch the whole spectacle actively covered by a seemingly obsessed, yet free, press.

If that’s the price, I’m ready to pay.

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