Defining terrorism just up to the first semi-colon – violent acts (or threat of violent acts) intended to create fear (terror) – which of the following would you say is more terroristic: ISIS or the media? I’d better stick with what I know, so let’s make that: ISIS or the American media?
There is no question that the first half of the definition, violent acts (or threat of violent acts), fits ISIS. It does not fit the American media. Or, sort of not. While it’s true that the American media does not threaten to commit violent acts, the effect of what it does do is to make people feel threatened.
When it comes to the second half of the definition, acts intended to create fear, it’s a different story. While it is debatable whether the American media’s intention is to create fear, its accomplishment of the purpose of terrorism, the creation of fear, dwarfs the accomplishment of ISIS.
You may disagree, you may feel that maybe I’m exaggerating to make a point. The media’s bad, sure – but as bad as ISIS? Worse than ISIS? Come on!
Let’s take a look at a front page of that least sensational, most civilized newspaper, The New York Times:
Imagine if Jihadists had broken into the Comedy Central studio and machine-gunned a dozen of John Stewart’s writers. Would Le Monde have given that story as much space? Hmmm. It probably would have.
So, instead, let’s imagine that it was three French neo-Nazi skinheads who broke into Charlie Hebdo’s office and slaughtered seventeen people. Would The Times make that its two-column lead story? It probably would have made it to the front page, but the most important story for Times readers that day would have been the police slow-down. (Le Monde of our hypothetical January 8 Comedy Central massacre also would have looked different, depending on whether the perpetrators were three Jihadists or three white supremacists.)
Of course, The Times is hardly a major source of panic in the U. S. Television is.
I did not watch the television news coverage of Charlie Hebdo, but I am sure it was breathlessly treated as news of world-shaking importance. Now, imagine instead that the Charlie Hebdo massacre was broadcast by CNN, Fox, MSNBC, PBS, etc., as the kind of story that’s prefaced by the newscaster’s equivalent of “meanwhile, in Paris.” Imagine that the lead story on all the American news channels was Obama’s plan for free community college. Then, “Turning to Paris, three Muslim fundamentalists stormed into etc. etc.”
The most important question is “Why?” Why was the Charlie Hebdo attack the big news, even outside of France? Around the same day, African Jihadists slaughtered 100 to 2,000 people (depending on the source of the number) in a Nigerian city. Why was so much more attention paid to Charlie Hebdo?
“Why?” may be the most important question, but I have no idea what the answer is. Sorry. I could speculate, but the reasons behind the Charlie Hebdo hysteria, which eventually drew dozens of world leaders to Paris (perhaps also hoping they could get a little shopping done), as well as an apology from Obama for not being there, would need a weighty book written by someone with PhD’s in political science, sociology and theology – some psychology would be helpful, too. Now that I think of it, I suspect that economics may play the largest role.
Now, let’s imagine that instead of a complex, hard-to-explain rationale for the media’s choice of what news to focus on, there were a simpler criterion: What stories are most important for our audience to know? For The New York Times, on the day of Charlie Hebdo, that would have been the police slow-down. For a Cleveland television station, it might have been new information about a recent police shooting.
(That’s not to say that lead stories must always be local. It’s just that, except for Charlie Hebdo, not much happened in the world on January 7th. The January 8th Boko Haram attack didn’t make print news until the following day.)
Now let’s add another layer of journalistic devotion to public service to our imaginary uncomplicated guidelines for judging the importance of news stories. What if the news media were to consciously play down terrorist violence simply because it did not want to be complicit in abetting terrorists in “creating fear,” because it did not want to give a megaphone to terrorists.
A terrorist attack would still be covered, of course – but the way an earthquake that kills 20 people or a massacre in a shopping mall, in another part of the country or of the world, would be covered. Big news, yes – but not the kind that would drive people to check Google for earthquake fault lines near where they live or keep them from going shopping, or that would make celebrities and world leaders think that they’d better go and march in solidarity with the city with the earthquake or the shopping center.
Still, there’s YouTube and the internet. The megaphone’s already there, isn’t it? So what difference does it make?
Okay. On November 16, Peter Kassig was beheaded by ISIS. ISIS made a video which it uploaded to YouTube, as well as other sites. Unlike its previous beheading videos, this one only pictured Kassig’s severed head. (The theory is that there was a problem when the video was made – only one take was possible, of course. Perhaps Kassig put up a fight, which would make him a hero of Homeric stripe.) Still, the video drew plenty of attention. YouTube deleted it, of course, but it still can be found on the Internet. (I’m sure it can be; I’m not going to look for it).
So, how many people have seen that video? What’s your guess? My guess is one million people. It could have been more. Let’s say five million. But when it comes to creating fear, how much worldwide fear would those scattered million or five million individual viewers of the video have added to the story if it had been on the fourth page of the newspapers and was aired only after the first commercial on the six o’clock news: “Turning to the Middle-East: Sad to say, there has been another American casualty in the Syrian conflict: aid-worker, Steven Kassig, who was being held captive by ISIS, has been killed by them. The group released a video of the aftermath of the execution, which appears to have been a beheading. Secretary of State Kerry said blah, blah. . .”
I wasn’t able to find the full front page of the November 16th Times; this was the best I could do:
Mr. Kassig “was taken from us in an act of pure evil by a terrorist group,” Mr. Obama said in a statement from aboard Air Force One that was read to the news media in Washington.
In recent days, American intelligence agencies received strong indications that the Islamic State had killed Mr. Kassig, the group’s third American victim. The president’s announcement was the first official confirmation of his death.
Why did President Obama make that official confirmation, instead of someone in the security services, or a member of Kassig’s family? Perhaps the President thought that by announcing it himself he would give the tragedy the weight he felt it deserved; perhaps he wanted to warn ISIS that the White House was on its case; perhaps an advisor thought that such an announcement might help with the President’s approval rating. Whatever the reason, the result was that ISIS’ murder of an American became more than just a murder, it became what I will call a news convulsion. It allowed ISIS to be seen exactly as it wishes to be seen, as a dangerous, vengeful, bloodthirsty force that makes the whole world (even the President of the United States) tremble.
So, evidently it is not just the media which is, inadvertently, aiding and abetting terrorists.
Good journalism requires that a Jihadist massacre in Paris or the beheading of a hostage aid-worker be thoroughly reported. It does not require that these events be treated as the most important events of the day.
Good governance requires that the country do its best to identify terrorists and eliminate them. It does not require that Washington raises the general public’s level of anger and alarm.
Lots of bad things happen in the world. Ferries sink, airplanes crash, pipelines explode, floods inundate huge populations, earthquakes destroy cities, families are destroyed in murder-suicides – and terrorists cause havoc. If the media reported the evil perpetrated by terrorists in the same way that it reported other evils, the ability of terrorists to create fear would be diminished. If Jihadists contemplating going on suicide missions or cutting off hostages’ heads on-camera knew that the attitude of the news media would be “ho-hum,” there probably would be fewer suicide missions, and hostage-takers might decide their captives would be better used as bargaining chips than as theater.