America's Idiots

Terry Jones' Quran-threatening circus shows that the enemy of American democracy isn’t just foreign terrorists, but also homegrown idiots turning U.S. policy into reality TV.

Phil Sandlin / AP Photo,Phil Sandlin

Phil Sandlin / AP Photo

Pastor Terry Jones

On July 19, the Council on American-Islamic Relations sent out a press release that included the Facebook page for Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center's "International Burn a Koran Day" on September 11. A few days later, the obscure Florida pastor began his ascent into the international media spotlight. Within 10 days, Jones was on a CNN show with Rick Sanchez. Then, with the date approaching, the attention snowballed. According to Yahoo! News' Michael Calderone, more than 50 U.S. newspapers featured the pastor's plans as a front-page story on September 8. The media, it appears, could not get enough. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Council on Foreign Relations, "It's regrettable that a pastor in Gainesville, Florida, with a church of no more than 50 people can make this outrageous and distressful, disgraceful plan and get the world's attention."

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Joe the Plumber

In October 2008, Joe Wurzelbacher was just another working-class man trying to earn a living and run a small plumbing business in Ohio. Then Barack Obama stopped by in Toledo during a campaign visit, where Wurzelbacher asked him about his taxes. Immediately, he became a conservative and Republican hero. New York Post headlines and appearances on Fox News Channel quickly followed. Even Katie Couric got on the phone with him. Across the country, "Joe the Plumber" became a household name. "I'm kind of like Britney Spears having a headache," Wurzelbacher told the AP at the time. "Everybody wants to know about it."

Mary Altaffer / AP Photo

Steven Slater

Steven Slater, a JetBlue flight attendant, made headlines in August when he was arrested after lashing out at a female passenger before exiting the aircraft by an inflatable emergency chute. Within hours, the story spread like wildfire across the Internet and Slater became an social-media folk hero, with a Facebook fan page and websites like and the Steven Slater Legal Defense Fund to boot. Slater, meanwhile, had little clue about his newfound fame. Released from jail on a $2,500 bond on September 3, he told reporters, "I knew there was a brouhaha about this, but while I was on the inside I didn't realize how much attention it got."

Evan Agostini / AP Photo


Since MTV's Jersey Shore took off in 2009, no character on the hit reality show has gained as much media star power as Snooki. Whether it's the cover of Steppin' Out ("NY & NJ's No. 1 Entertainment Magazine") or a snooty, demeaning New York Times profile, Snooki continues to appear everywhere in the media world, high and low.

Dave Allocca / AP Photo

Nadya Denise Doud-Suleman Gutierrez

Nadya Suleman, the California "OctoMom" who took fertility treatments and had octuplets—despite being on Food Stamps and already having six kids—was a staple in tabloids and gossip magazines in early 2009, and news programs on CBS and NBC, as well as magazines like Newsweek, provided plenty of coverage, too. Over a year later, she continued to be a presence in the media, appearing on Oprah in April. No wonder Suleman says she's tired of feeling like a "carnival attraction."

David Zalubowski / AP Photo

Falcon Heene

In October 2009, the saga of Falcon Heene, the Colorado child known also known as "Balloon Boy," became a media sensation, most notably on the 24-hour news channels, which provided up-to-the-minute, commercial-free coverage for more than an hour. As NPR's David Folkenflik writes, "The medium was the message. The images of that silver mylar balloon shooting across the sky were transfixing. They came from a local news helicopter—ginned up, apparently, by the phone call of Falcon's own father, Richard Heene, to the newsroom of a local television station shortly after the balloon's release to the sky." Perhaps not surprisingly, even today, Heene still receives media coverage: Most recently, United Press International covered his family's cross-country move to Florida.

Charlie Riedel / AP Photo

Fred Phelps/Westboro Baptist Church

On March 10, 2006, pastor Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, picketed the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder as part of a campaign to tarnish the funerals of fallen soldiers. While Phelps’ actions weren’t new—he had, after all, been protesting since June 1991, when he led an anti-gay picket at a local park, and had received significant media attention since—his demonstrations at funerals certainly were. Which is why the Snyder family targeted him in a major lawsuit for defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The family was later awarded a total of $11 million and many states now ban picketing near cemeteries. In 2007, the BBC even labeled the Phelpses “America’s most hated family.”

Steve Pope / AP Photo

Jim Gilchrist

Jim Gilchrist founded the Minuteman Project, an activist group of private individuals who watch the U.S.-Mexico border’s flow of illegal immigrants, in October 2004. By April the next year, the group became a focus of the media, with Gilchrist & Co. taking part in a month-long border-watch project and Fox News’ Sean Hannity tackling the early coverage. Later that year, Gilchrist ran unsuccessfully as an American Independent Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, but nothing caught the media’s attention like his border-patrol missions—and, of course, his book Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America's Borders.

Matt Sayles / AP Photo

Levi Johnston

In 2008, during the U.S. presidential election, along came Sarah Palin—and, by association, her daughter Bristol’s boyfriend Levi Johnston. Since then, he’s posed for Playgirl, appeared on CBS’ The Early Show (six times!), and has been featured in a GQ magazine profile. There’s no telling when the media furor over the 20-year-old Alaskan will cease. Not soon, probably: Johnston announced in August he plans to run for mayor of Wasilla and will be documenting it in a new reality show, Loving Levi: The Road to the Mayor's Office.