One of the interesting (by which I mean dull, predictable and repetitive) aspects of the 24 hour news cycle is that all forms of media have incentives to magnify and actively seek out controversy. Not only does this increase ratings/page views/newspaper sales, it provides media outlets with something – anything in a slow news month – to talk about. I can’t help but feel that the recent outburst of commentary about the construction of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks is the type of story designed to increase media consumption and accomplish little else. The First Amendment is not in dispute here; freedom of religion is well established and protected by settled case law. Furthermore, the proposed mosque is to be constructed on private property, and there is no legal reason to challenge its construction. And so most of the discussion revolves (and frequently devolves) around taste and symbolism.
People can disagree in good faith about whether the mosque is in good taste or whether it symbolizes a hopeful gesture towards reconciliation or a deliberate poke in the eye, but the bottom line is that the owners of the property can build a mosque if they so choose, and there is little reason for anyone else aside from the families of the victims of 9/11 or residents of that area of New York to comment. And yet, now we have figures ranging from Weekly Standard staffers to President Obama weighing in, with Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter tripping over the English language to write of President Obama that “yesterday’s comments are among his finest hours.” Personally, I thought last week’s quips were among his finest years.
My point, of course, is not to criticize the President – with whom I largely agree on this issue – but simply to note in passing the vacuity of many media-generated controversies. What’s best for media companies – lots of controversy and perpetual partisan warfare – is not always what’s best for the country or for us as individuals. Whether the mosque is built or not, little will have changed in our laws or our culture. In my view, it’s helpful to try and distinguish between substantive issues – two wars, the economy, health care, unemployment benefits, even prison reform – and pre-fabricated and purely symbolic controversies of the day.