When Yasser Arafat died last month, the Arab street filled with thousands of mourners.
Among them were a large number of Western journalists, who gave him a hero’s treatment. Various news outlets described him as being “committed to the peace of the brave,” “one of the outstanding freedom fighters of this generation,” “a man of courage and conviction,” “a respected and approachable human being,” and “the Palestinian Abraham Lincoln.” London’s Guardian said Arafat’s “undisputed courage as a guerrilla leader” was exceeded only “by his extraordinary courage” as a peace negotiator. The bbc’s correspondent Barbara Plett admitted to crying when the sickly Arafat was first air-lifted from Ramallah because of her “connection to the man.”
Notably absent from much of the coverage was Arafat’s role in the development of modern terrorism. Absent were the voices of the Jews who had been victimized by his tactics of terror for over 40 years—the families of Israelis blown up in suicide bombings he paid for or of Americans killed in planes his people hijacked. Absent were the stories of the Palestinian Arabs who suffered under his corrupt leadership, who had been denied hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid earmarked for them because Arafat had illegally skimmed the funds for personal use.
No, the press instead focused on the mourning of those who shared Arafat’s commitment—in the words of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (plo) charter—to “destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence.”
Tom Gross shook his head over this stunning media phenomenon: “[N]owhere did Arafat find more starry-eyed fans than among some deluded European and North American journalists” (National Review Online, November 11).
Sadly, the coverage of Arafat’s death was just the latest example of the press’s consistently oversensitive treatment of terrorism.
What Is Terrorism?
Here’s how the U.S. government defines terrorism in Title 22 of the U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d): “The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” A sensible, straightforward description. It easily includes groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both classified as terrorist organizations by the State Department.
In the press, however, things get more complicated.
The policy of several major media outlets, including such vaulted institutions as Reuters and the New York Times, is to rely on euphemisms like militant rather than using the “emotive term” terrorist—particularly in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In researching the editorial practices of various news sources, HonestReporting.com has found that a distinction is often made, for example, between al Qaeda (terrorists) and Hamas or Islamic Jihad (militants). Papers such as the Washington Post, Orlando Sentinel and Boston Globe justify this decision by saying the Palestinian terrorist groups are “resisting occupation” or “at war” with Israel; thus, even acts targeting civilians aren’t necessarily “terrorism.”
Some media outlets are deliberately defying this practice and calling terrorism exactly what it is. Canada’s largest newspaper chain, CanWest, recently took this course. On September 14, it tested out its new tactic on a Reuters article it printed. Reuters reporter Jeffrey Heller described the Palestinian al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades as having “been involved in a four-year-old revolt against Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank.” CanWest changed this to a more accurate description: “a terrorist group that has been involved in a four-year-old campaign of violence against Israel.”
Reuters protested and officially informed CanWest that if it was going to change stories that way, the Reuters byline should be removed. “Our editorial policy is that we don’t use emotive words when labeling someone,” explained Reuters global managing editor, David A. Schlesinger, to the New York Times. He didn’t want there to be any confusion over what Reuters reported, and expressed concern for the safety of the company’s field reporters on dangerous assignments. “My goal is to protect our reporters and protect our editorial integrity,” he said. Shortly afterward, on a cbc radio interview, he spoke candidly of the “serious consequences” if certain “people in the Mideast” thought Reuters was calling such men “terrorists.”
The ugly truth comes out: Reuters refuses to call terrorists what they are—not in pursuit of editorial objectivity but, significantly, because it is afraid of them.
Cowardice and Sympathy
The intimidation factor may be more pervasive than we realize. The Reuters incident brings to mind the story reported by the Trumpet earlier this year of cnn’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, admitting—after Saddam Hussein’s ousting in 2003—that for years he had suppressed major stories of the atrocities happening in Iraq in order to protect the lives of his reporters. In the 1990s, Saddam’s men abducted and tortured one cnn cameraman on trumped-up spy charges. It didn’t take much of such brutality to convince cnn to be very cautious in its Iraq coverage. If it wanted to retain its bureau in Baghdad, it had to be willing to compromise.
That is not to say that all news coverage of terrorist activity is tainted by cowardice. Some of it is tainted by pure bias—a perverse sympathy with the aims of the terrorists.
Within certain governments and media outlets is a common, yet flawed, logic that if people are willing to slaughter civilians, they must have a good reason. As the saying goes, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Most journalists would not state this view directly (although stunts such as Dan Rather interviewing Saddam Hussein on network television before the Iraq invasion do make you wonder).
Can we not recognize evil when we see it? However “noble” the cause, to use it as justification for killing noncombatants is heinous, and there should be no equivocation on that point. As Israeli terrorism scholar Boaz Ganor said, “When you deliberately choose to attack civilians, you cannot say any more, ‘I am not a terrorist because I am a freedom fighter.’ Maybe you are a freedom fighter, but you are also definitely a terrorist.”
Nevertheless, newsmakers time and again have shaded their coverage, parsed their language, obscured certain facts and headlined others, in a manner inarguably advantageous to terrorists. This reflects a bias that easily springs from—but represents a perversion of—the newsmedia’s traditional adversarial role against government and big business, and its historical advocacy of the underdog.
In the July 12 Wall Street Journal, Orson Scott Card ridiculed an Associated Press news story about terrorists murdering civilians and taking hostages in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, for scrupulously avoiding the word terrorist. “Instead, the killers are ‘gunmen’ (in the headline), ‘suspected Islamic militants wearing military-style uniforms’ and ‘attackers’ (in the body of the story).
“Suspected Islamic militant—this pussyfooting appellation even though later in the story we learn that an Islamic group called ‘Al-Quds’ and signing itself ‘al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula’ is claiming credit for the attack. But presumably they are only ‘suspected’ of being Islamic militants because, after all, they might turn out to be long-hidden Nazis or perhaps holdouts from the Irish Republican Army or—who knows?—maybe Timothy McVeigh’s buddies from the ‘red states’ in America.” This is not mere “impartiality.” It is outrageous distortion.
Consider on the other hand the reportage that counterterrorism measures often receive—particularly, again, in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. When Israeli soldiers killed Hamas founder Sheikh Yassin and Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz Rantissi last spring, vociferous condemnation was heaped on the Israeli government. The media regularly fling about terms like murder and assassination after such strikes (which, incidentally and in stark contrast to terrorism, are planned to be as surgical as possible—even increasing the risk to Israelis—so as to minimize the possibility of civilian casualties).
The press’s propensity to identify with terrorists was powerfully evident after 9/11. A close cousin of the anti-Americanism that triggered the attacks immediately produced a profusion of speculation that the U.S. was guilty of having provoked the terrorists—in other words, “America had it coming.” Such nonsense didn’t just appear in tabloids on the Arab street, but in reputable mainstream papers throughout Europe and Asia. France’s Le Monde, for example, featured a front-page article in its Sept. 19, 2001, issue that included a denunciation by Morocco’s Islamist Justice and Welfare Party of the “boomerang effect” of American domination, saying, “The dead at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are only ‘the most recent victims’ of an American power.” Some commentators went beyond the already egregious sin of expressing solidarity with the terrorists: They actually accused the U.S. of somehow orchestrating the attacks to drum up a sham excuse to go to war. Surely al Qaeda couldn’t have been more pleased.
This situation brings to mind the wisdom contained in Proverbs 17:15: “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord.”
Exploiting the Media
How much does this type of fearfulness and bias embolden terrorists and help their cause? To what extent are the media accomplices in the violence? This is a terrifying question.
To answer it, we must think beyond the artificial language that bestows legitimacy upon acts of barbarity. We must consider as well the terrorists’ exploitation of mass media to achieve their goals.
While many terrorists condemn how Western technology spreads wickedness and corruption, repeatedly they have proven themselves quite savvy at using it to spread fear. And fear is simply the terrorists’ most potent weapon.
A videotaped message from Osama bin Laden receives not just airtime during major network news broadcasts, but hours of discussion and commentary on radio and television talk shows. A single envelope containing a few anthrax spores makes front-page headlines on every major daily in the country. That is not to say that the public should remain uninformed, but rather to pose the question: How much do newsmakers play into the hands of terrorists, inspiring fear in millions, by pumping their words and deeds through media megaphones?
Even more horrific, consider the spate of kidnappings we have witnessed in Iraq over this past year. Seared in our minds are the images—again, replicated countless times over Internet lines and television airwaves—of innocent hostages surrounded by hooded terrorists making anxious appeals to their home governments to alter foreign policy, then being pitilessly beheaded with dull sabers. Would this tactic of terror even work if not for mass media?
As Daniel Mandel wrote in the Baltimore Sun, “Clearly, the media fail in their mission when they allege superior detachment while in reality they become obliging accomplices of terrorists. Terrorists might well continue killing, whatever the nature of the reportage. But they should receive no help from journalists. And if they do, the media cannot expect immunity from criticism” (November 5).
Terrorists are emboldened by weakness.
To be able to intimidate journalists, manipulate media coverage, commit arbitrary violence and simultaneously stir up global hostility against the victims, film shocking brutality and watch the tapes seize attention worldwide, swing elections in major nations—these are heady victories.
As long as the press puts its priority on the scoop, or the viability of the bureau, or some twisted ideology, rather than on the truth, it will continue to be terrorized, exploited and used—unwitting tools in the hands of the most violent enemies of civilization.