Westboro Church Protestors -- Ignore Them


Mary Winter

Assistant Managing Editor
Mainstream media don't publish pornography or gratuitous violence. They don't give soapboxes to extremist groups such as the Aryan Brotherhood or the Man-Boy Love Association.
So maybe they should think twice about covering Westboro Baptist Church members, who picket funerals of soldiers and newsmakers.
This small-town Kansas congregation spews hate, vilifies a minority and spreads a message that offends even the thickest-skinned among us. Church members haul out their "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" signs for one reason -- to get national exposure for their bizarre belief that God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality.
This week, church members planned to exploit the funerals of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green and five other Tucson shooting victims until they managed to cut a better media deal for themselves.
But had they demonstrated in Arizona, the media would have lined up to cover them.
The stories are popular with readers and viewers. News outfits can track which stories get the most eyeballs, and the Westboro wingnuts always track high.
Who knows what the public finds so compelling about Westboro picketers. You'd think the shock value would have worn off by now, the schtick gotten old. Maybe it's the freak-show appeal, ie., it's naughty to look, but your curiosity just gets the better of you.
Editors cite other reasons for covering Westboro picketers. Last month, National Public Radio did a 48-second report on them at the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards in North Carolina. Here's Dave Pignanelli, an NPR news editor, explaining why:
"Westboro church members have been the subject of lawsuits about past incidents," Pignanelli told NPR's ombudswoman. "And since this is another high-profile funeral and they threatened to show up, it is news. Their actions may be distasteful, but it is news. We treated it with as much time as we felt it deserved."
Alicia Shepard, NPR's ombudswoman, admitted to some ambiguity in an article she wrote on the NPR website: "What would happen . . . if NPR ignored the protestors? Wouldn't that be censoring the news? And isn't this group newsworthy just for the fact that they also are at the heart of a case before the Supreme Court? [The father of a dead Marine is suing them for intentional infliction of emotional distress for protesting at his son's funeral.]"
Shepard concludes by wishing NPR hadn't done a 48-second report on the pickets at Edwards' funeral -- "because it gave a hateful message more attention that it deserved." It would have been better if NPR had simply reported the group's presence at the service in a top-of-the-hour newscast, she wrote.
That's a good start. But what if news organizations just decided not to cover Westboro, period? Nothing in writing -- just an agreement that ignoring Westboro's twisted message is the right thing to do. Kind of like what many media did when the Florida pastor said he would burn Korans -- inciting Muslims around the world -- until the mosque in New York City was cancelled. News outlets independently decided not to give him what he wanted, which was publicity.
Collusion? I wouldn't call it that. We do adhere to a few rules we think reflect community standards. We give minimal play to suicides, generally, and we agree to conceal the identities of youngsters and adults who have been sexually molested. We leave out details of pedophiles' actions, and I don't know any editors who think Ted Kaczyinski should be writing a weekly column.
Such topics are off-limits, and maybe Westboro Baptist Church protests should be, too.
One last troubling aspect to this story is how the Westboro group was able to "trade up." Last week, it was reported they had agreed to skip the Tucson funerals in exchange for getting interviews on three radio stations in Canada, New York and Phoenix.
Westboro's foot soldiers may look like hayseeds from Kansas, but they know how to work the media.