Terrorists' visual warfare uses the media as weapon

With America handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi people a month ago, one phase of the war is behind us. But if recent developments are any indicator, we've entered a murkier, more troubling arena in the war on terror: visual warfare.

Videotaped executions, from that of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, to another purported to be that of Army reservist Matt Maupin, to that of a Turkish hostage on Sunday, are barbaric killings that terrorize the eyes and minds of Americans and everyone worldwide. Terrorists last month threatened to kill a captive Filipino and succeeded in driving the Philippines' small contingent of troops from Iraq. [Editor's note: The original version failed to clarify that a videotaped execution referred to was only purportedly of Army reservist Matt Maupin. The Army continues to officially list him as captured.]

Years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised us freedom from fear in addition to freedom of speech, of worship, and from want. But in media-crazed 2004, that fourth freedom is at odds with the freedom of the press.

Troubling questions abound: Does terrorism exist without the media? Does coverage of terrorist acts empower or encourage the people behind them? If terrorism is directed more at the audience than at its victims, shouldn't television journalists stop giving terrorists the forum they covet? Can they? Now that attacks on American soil have begotten attacks on Americans abroad, these questions need to be answered in America's newsrooms.

In a Howard Dean Scream age of hype - where footage is run and rerun particularly in the absence of story developments - broadcasters need to start considering new internal guidelines in order to remove hype from terrorism coverage. Excerpts from the execution of Nick Berg, an American entrepreneur in Iraq, were aired repeatedly. When terrorists gave the US 72 hours to comply with their demands before executing American contractor Paul Johnson, the cable networks breathlessly ticked down the time remaining. Network anchors lament global terrorism even as they become complicit partners.

Broadcasters must create internal guidelines for terrorism coverage. Some networks made decisions to stop replaying 9/11 footage after a few days. Also, with a few exceptions, no viewers were exposed to the victims leaping from the towers. That's a good first step. But how about some other loosely formalized rules, rather than the usual postevent hand-wringing?

Perhaps a hard cap on replaying footage of terrorist events for only a day or two would help, as the incessant 9/11 footage traumatized many viewers and emboldened the men behind it. Another good idea would be showing only still photographs of terrorist videos, rather than the more chilling sound and motion. Maybe television producers could consign footage to a certain time slot, so that those who wish to stop watching would be forewarned. The options are legion.

It's not as if such practices would trample on press freedoms. The media already adhere to a set of unwritten rules. In the Kobe Bryant case, mainstream journalists continuously refused to publish the rape victim's identity. After a number of high school shootings, some newspapers agreed to move the stories off the front page to deter copycats. In the wake of the 2000 election debacle, political reporters agreed to cut down coverage of exit polls that were suspected of tainting the electoral process. Electronic media withhold graphic war footage so as not to offend viewers' sensibilities. (That's one of the reasons given for the R rating of "Fahrenheit 9/11.")

There are tangible examples of terrorists seeking out media coverage, too. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski racked up 13 counts of murder and bombing before he reached his ultimate objective - validation by having his thoughts published in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Terrorism experts believe the 9/11 attacks were staggered to guarantee that TV cameras would capture the second plane's collision into the second tower. Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh admitted he picked a government building in order to maximize the exposure. On a smaller scale, environmentalists bombed a Hummer dealership in southern California solely for the media attention. And broadcasters continue to play along, in a potentially deadly pas de deux.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been inculcated with the mantra that to do certain things (like not shopping) was akin to "letting the terrorists win"; most of the time, such a statement is a stretch. But America's 24-hour news channels are essentially aiding the enemy by packaging America's fear to gain higher ratings. This mind-set ends up encouraging political criminals to contemplate further acts of political violence. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial page recently agreed, noting: "Less attention is what [terrorists] should receive. Psychological warfare works only if someone pays attention to it."

Certainly, television news covers terrorist attacks for the high-minded journalistic objective of informing viewers. But the zeal with which fear has been commoditized - from shark attacks to child kidnappings to the Washington sniper - is a product of TV executives realizing that frightened people put down the remote control and await news updates, ratcheting up ratings points. Unfortunately, this living-room fearmongering plays right into the hands of terrorists who are attempting to rattle every American, turning television news reporters into de facto publicists for terrorists.

So what are the broadcast outlets supposed to do?

Nearly 20 years ago, the eminent Washington reporter David Broder suggested that "the essential ingredient of any effective antiterrorist policy must be the denial to the terrorist of access to mass media outlets." He said this in a different era, before 24-hour news channels were in hot competition for Americans' attention. He's still right.

Amateur cooks learn quickly that pouring water on a grease fire only makes it worse. Broadcasters must realize that their coverage might be doing the same. Like cutting off the oxygen that sustains a flame, a few internal shifts in reporting policy would traumatize viewers less and could save lives.

Matthew Felling is media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a research group.

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