P.O.V. No.20 - Terrorism and Film

Stuck in the middle with you:
Dilemmas of the mass media when covering terrorism in the Information Age

Jody W. Pennington

The mass media connect both democratically elected governments and terrorist organizations to large-scale audiences. The media realize governments and terrorist organizations attempt to manipulate them and to take advantage of the mass media's resources for circulating information. With terrorist acts, the media's gate-keeping function is complicated by the well-rehearsed fact that the terrorist event must be covered even though the event is the message. Terrorists depend on an equation of event plus mass mediation to achieve the ultimate effect. Terrorism places mass media in a peculiar light, highlighting their strengths, weaknesses, and, above all, their built-in dilemmas. By contrast, the threats posed by governments are censorship, misinformation, and propaganda. Limits imposed on the media by governments are perceived by most Westerners to limit a fundamental right to free expression. Because the media transmit information related to terrorist-related risk, their role as information providers is irreducibly complicated and dangerous. In this paper, I will look at some of the dilemmas faced by the mass media inherent in their role as mediators between terrorists and governments. In particular, I will look at the Internet as a mass medium, television as a conveyor of symbolic meaning to a mass audience, and government efforts to limit the press.

Terrorism and the media
Knowledge and information processing are central to the conduct of war today; this is applicable to states and non-state organizations such as Al-Qaeda. As Philip Taylor notes, "the ability to sustain peace will depend increasingly the acquisition, processing, dissemination and control of knowledge" (16). Information technology and the mass media became ever more central to the conduct of war and the maintenance of peace throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the role played by telegraph in the US Civil War and the significance of wireless communication technology for the development of modern naval fleets to radio's facilitation of Nazi Germany's Blitzkrieg and mass propaganda during World War Two, technological progress has influenced the course of warfare as it has in turn been influenced by it (Bishop and Goldman 116). Today's information landscape still includes scraps of paper and handwritten messages, but it has become increasingly dominated by cable, cellular, and satellite networks and the Internet. According to Philip D. Zelikow, the terrorists involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks used chat rooms, email, and the World Wide Web, the latter providing information about the targets, in plotting their attacks (quoted in Talbot 48). Information gleaned from terrorist training camps in Afghanistan disclosed how Al-Qaeda operatives surfed US government web sites to mine information provided by the US General Accounting Office, among others, for information about potential targets (Shultz and Vogt 18). It is no small irony that a de-centralized information network-the Internet-designed to prevent the Soviet Union from incapacitating the United State's information system in a war, has been adopted by contemporary de-centralized terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda has their primary communication medium. "[E]xperts agree," writes David Talbot, "that the Internet is not just a tool of terrorist organizations, but is central to their operations" (48).

Regulating terrorists' use of the Internet as a mass medium of communication is difficult. The US Supreme Court has determined that the Internet is a cyber public sphere protected by the First Amendment:

Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer. We agree with its conclusion that our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium. (Reno, Attorney General of the United States, et al. V. American Civil Liberties Union et al.)

A basic premise of US constitutional doctrine concerning the public sphere and freedom of expression is the idea that the regulation of expression, which includes regulation of the various media and channels that facilitate expression, should be proportionate, no more strictly or broadly defined than necessary. As Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for the Supreme Court in its 1957 decision Butler v. Michigan, laws that restricted speech without being narrowly tailored amounted to "burn[ing] the house to roast the pig." Because terrorists have multiple media objectives-ranging from gaining publicity for their cause, frightening populations beyond immediate bystanders through media audiences, alerting sleepers, or gaining recruits-it is difficult within the framework of a liberal constitution for democratic governments to successfully regulate media coverage of terrorist events in a narrowly tailored fashion. Self-regulation on the part of the media is equally difficult, since censorship largely runs counter to media organizations' self-understanding.

Part of the difficulty the media face stems from the similarity of their needs to those of terrorists, which the latter have proven to be highly adept at manipulating. First, both terrorist acts and the mass media need a public sphere in which to function-both need an audience. In a sense, terrorism resembles a perverse version of reality TV. Both terrorism and reality TV require the boundary between the viewing audience at home and the contestants in the studio or on location be blurred so that all feel like participants. In the case of terrorism, the immediate participant is always a victim-a casualty or a hostage-who becomes a mediated participant parallel to the reality television contestant with whom the audience identifies. The blurred distinction between observer and participant is crucial if acts of terror are to achieve their intended effect within and on the public sphere: either we are victims or we are always potential victims, victims in waiting.

Second, the media function as a conduit of information for terrorists because terrorist events fit the criteria of newsworthiness. In the post-CNN, BBC World, Al-Jazeera, and WWW media environment, any significant terrorist act is guaranteed free air time with access to mass audiences, which translates into a propaganda coup and damaging psychological impact. The general public in a country and local community that has suffered a terrorist attack has a need for and a right to information concerning the event, particularly as that information pertains to public safety. As acts that induce mass trauma, terrorist acts are seen by the agencies that must respond to them as man-made disasters on par with natural disasters and requiring similar large-scale coordinated public safety responses.

Many authorities agree that terrorists seek psychological more than physical disruption (see, for example, Heymann and Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. 9). Psychological effects range from fear, intimidation, and insecurity to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic stress. To optimize psychological impact, terrorists often choose targets that will maximize the psychological damage inflicted on a population. From the perspective of the terrorist, the strongest psychological impact on the target audience is often achieved through attacks on symbolic targets such as "[c]ultural symbols, political institutions, and public leaders [which] are examples of iconic (nearly sacred) targets," writes Gus Martin, "that can affect large populations when attacked" (246). Symbolic targets include structures such as the Washington Monument or the Eiffel Tower; the aim is to exact "a devastating psychological blow by demolishing a cultural icon" (Shultz and Vogt 17-18). Any psychological impact attained by successfully targeting symbolic structures is magnified by the mediated images of the destruction and its aftermath as well as by dissipation of the information about the attack through the media.

Terrorists also target infrastructure such as bridges, nuclear power plants, or public transportation nodes. Once again, mediated images and dissemination increase the impact. Such targets combine the symbolic value of the attack with the goal of killing large numbers of people (Shultz and Vogt 18). The attacks on the trains in Madrid on 11 March 2004 exemplify this kind of target, and its extensive coverage in Spanish and international media heightened its effect.

A third type of target for acts of terror is human-either large numbers at one time or public figures. The attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001 combined all three types of targets: the Twin Towers were symbols of American financial power; the size of the skyscrapers and the large number of people who worked in them (around 50,000 on a typical day) made them vital infrastructures, cities onto themselves; and the death of over 2,700 people made it the most devastating terrorist act in history.

A reality of Fourth Generation asymmetrical warfare is that information has come to stand alongside physical destruction as an element of contemporary combat. Because terrorists cannot confront an opponent like the United States armed forces directly, they attempt to achieve superiority or at least a parity of sorts on the information front. In other words, "terrorists and insurgents, who lack military parity, seek to achieve their ultimate objectives by being successful in the information environment. They cannot successfully engage a superior force in the physical environment, so they conduct selected acts in the physical environment (bombings and small-scale attacks, for example) to shape the information environment (that is, perceptions)" (Emery, Werchan and Donald G. Mowles 34). One asymmetrical warfare tactic terrorist organizations and other "conventionally overmatched groups " employ to manipulate media information flow involves "the deliberate manipulation of the moral scruples of the stronger side and of the wider world (now able to witness wartime atrocities with near real-time immediacy) by forcing, or attempting to force, violations in the rules of war" (Skerker 28). Another is pushing democratic governments toward restricting fundamental freedoms that could erode support for a war against the terrorists.

The media and government: Silky censorship
In United States, the freedoms of expression granted to the press are guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and similar rights in state constitutions. The privileges granted to the media are based on various conceptions of how the press facilitates democratic self-government. The media are responsible for providing citizens the information needed for effective self-governance through news coverage of public affairs involving the government and government officials, national and local communities, and international events. The media's relationship with government is complicated since the press also has a watchdog function to fulfill by exposing governmental abuse of power and any other official misdeeds. The American tradition of freedom of expression generally does not allow for prior restraint by the government, which improves the media's ability to expose wrongdoing.

In the virtual absence of prior restraint, more subtle forms of censorship have developed. Among these is what Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs has called "a silky form of censorship" (quoted in Jones and Kemper). Given the limits on prior restraint and the dictates of state and federal freedom of information acts, government denials of access to information are often couched in national security claims. As Doris Graber has documented, the Bush Administration has frequently employed national security claims to justify censorship (Graber 542-43). In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush Administration encouraged government officials at all levels to hinder access to what it deemed sensitive information. The media were also encouraged to practice self-censorship in the name of patriotism and civic duty. For example, in October 2001, Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Advisor, personally asked the CEOs of the major American television networks to refrain from broadcasting live, unedited video or audio clips from Osama bin Laden, because, she said, the administration was concerned that bin Laden's communiqués might contain coded directions for his foot soldiers. In an unprecedented move, the major networks acquiesced in the Administration's request. President of CBS News Andrew Heyward told reporters he did not "see any conflict between patriotism and good journalism" (quoted in Jones and Kemper). Doris Graber's research into the rhetorical strategies adopted by both government and media spokespersons to justify censorship following the September 11, 2001 attacks shows that journalists themselves sometimes justify censorship by appealing to national security, public demands, patriotism or civic virtue, and defending common values (Graber 542-49).

The balance to be struck is between the citizen's right to reliable neutral information and faith in public authorities who may have legitimate national security reasons for withholding information, but who might also misinform or attempt to spin their policies and performances for personal or partisan gain. Numerous studies suggest the US media have been too uncritical in their coverage of the Bush Administration's policies implemented in response to the events of September 11. Critiques range from the media's failure to challenge the validity of a "war on terror" to a lack of critical analysis, reportage, and commentary on the war on terror (see, for example, Coe et al.; Kellner). The dilemma here is straightforward: if the press is too critical of the Administration, it risks incurring the Administration's wrath, as when former Attorney General of the United States John Ashcroft testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee:

to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists-for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies, and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil. ("Testimony of Attorney General John Ashcroft")

Although most journalists avoid compromising national security, many drew a line at Ashcroft's accusations. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle forcefully rejected Ashcroft's arguments: "A vigorous debate about the proper balance between law enforcement "tools" and civil liberties does not undermine President Bush or his war on terrorism; it is an affirmation of a system that is greater and more enduring than any individual who happens to hold office at any given moment" (Editorial).

Coverage of military activities highlights the mass media's dilemmas. Democratic governments establish conflict media policies for their military operations during the planning stages of a campaign. Such policies involve both cooperating with the media and impeding media access to unfiltered information. Press briefings replete with videos of apparently flawless air strikes, maps, charts, and accommodating, if reticent, officers provide the press with images, sound bites, and information that further military goals. From a strategic perspective, tightly controlled information environments allow the military to shape the perceptions of the media audience and in turn the perceptions of the public as a whole in such a way as to ensure support for the war effort. The media are indispensable to the military's efforts at creating and maintaining public support for war efforts as well as being a channel for disseminating disinformation targeted at adversaries. In their role of providing their audiences with information about critical events, the media are voluntary conduits of information (Taylor 145).

This conflicts with the media's watchdog function, which entails seeking alternative channels of information to the government and militarily sanctioned versions of events. The specter of threats to national security always looms when the press publish alternative versions of events or information that the government prefers to suppress.

There are numerous parameters that have to be taken into consideration when considering the relationship between the media and terrorism. The relationship is complicated by the use of the media by terrorists to optimize the psychological impact of their acts of terror beyond the immediate location of the act itself, and what could cynically be described as the media's use of terrorism to attract audiences. The media's role is complicated by the divergent responsibilities of journalists. On the one hand, journalists have a professional interest in maintaining objectivity and neutrality in their coverage of terrorists' acts or groups; on the other hand, journalists are citizens with the same civic duties as other citizens. This dichotomy is sustained by the First Amendment, which can be interpreted as giving journalists greater leeway than other citizens in fulfilling certain civic duties. For example, journalists might infiltrate criminal (or terrorist) organizations in order to write an article but not reveal sources.

Although I argue that the paradox faced by mass media in democracies confronted with terrorist acts and threats of future terrorist acts is irresolvable, I do not agree with Jean Baudrillard's overly broad claim that "[t]here is no good use of the media: the media is part of the event itself, part of the terror, and its role plays in both directions" (Baudrillard 414). The mass media are indeed placed in a predicament by contemporary terrorism. It can be argued that the contemporary mass media epitomize the freedom versus security debates that have taken place since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Those debates suggest that the dilemma of striking a balance that is widely acceptable within pluralist democracies is theoretically impossible, although in practice a workable albeit contested compromise is an ongoing work in progress.

Works cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. "L'esprit-Du-Terrorisme (The Spirit of Terrorism, Like Viruses, It Is Everywhere)." South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (2002): 403-15.

Bishop, Matt, and Emily O. Goldman. "The Strategy and Tactics of Information Warfare." National Security in the Information Age. Ed. Emily O. Goldman. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2004. 113-39.

Coe, Kevin, et al. "No Shades of Gray: The Binary Discourse of George W. Bush and an Echoing Press." Journal of Communication 54.2 (2004): 234-52.

Editorial. "On Civil Liberties: Under Cloak of 'Security'." San Francisco Chronicle 9 Dec. 2001, sec. D: 4.

Emery, Major Norman, Jason Werchan, and Jr. Donald G. Mowles. "Fighting Terrorism and Insurgency: Shaping the Information Environment." Military Review (2005): 32-38.

Graber, Doris. "Styles of Image Management During Crises: Justifying Press Censorship." Discourse & Society 14.5 (2003): 539-57.

Heymann, Philip B., and Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Terrorism and America: A Commonsense Strategy for a Democratic Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

Jones, Tim, and Bob Kemper. "TV Pressed on Bin Laden Tapes." Chicago Tribune 11 Oct. 2001: http://www.chicagotribune.com.

Kellner, Douglas. "9/11, Spectacles of Terror, and Media Manipulation." Critical Discourse Studies 11 (2004): 41-64.

Martin, Gus. Understanding Terrorism: Challenges, Perspectives, and Issues. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003.

Reno, Attorney General of the United States, et al. v. American Civil Liberties Union et al. No. 96-511. US Supreme Court 1997.

Shultz, Richard H., and Andreas Vogt. "It's War! Fighting Post-11 September Global Terrorism through a Doctrine of Preemption." Terrorism and Political Violence 15.1 (2003): 1-30.

Skerker, Michael. "Just War Criteria and the New Face of War: Human Shields, Manufactured Martyrs, and Little Boys with Stones." Journal of Military Ethics 3.1 (2004): 27-39.

Talbot, David. "Terrorist's Server." Technology Review 108.2 (2005): 46-52.

Taylor, Philip M. Global Communications, International Affairs and the Media since 1945. London: Routledge, 1997.

"Testimony of Attorney General John Ashcroft." Senate Committee on the Judiciary. DOJ Oversight: Preserving Our Freedoms While Defending Against Terrorism ed. Washington, DC, 2001 of US Senate.

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