Media’s impact on promoting terrorism and furthering terrorists goals

 

Discuss the media′s impact on promoting terrorism and furthering terrorists′ goals. To what extent are the media accomplices in terrorist violence? How is the media′s impact indicative of why terrorism can work well against democracy?

Read the below and answer the question. Your initial response to question has to be 300 words.

“If terrorism is seen as political theater performed for audiences. . .clearly the
mass media plays a crucial role. Without massive news coverage the terrorist
act would resemble the proverbial tree falling in the forest.”
Accomplice or Witness?
The Media’s Role in Terrorism
BRIGITTE L. NACOS
It was the opening day of the World Trade Organization
meeting in Seattle, Washington in late
1999. Even before delegates from all over the
globe assembled for their first session, violence
broke out in the streets near the meeting site.
While 40,000 men and women representing various
organizations expressed their opposition to
WTO policies peacefully, a few dozen masked
protesters in fatigues retrieved hammers, M-80 firecrackers,
and spray paint from their knapsacks and
vandalized brand-name stores such as Starbucks,
Nike, FAO Schwarz, and Old Navy. The rampage by
self-described “anarchists” and the subsequent
“Battle of Seattle” between protesters and police
would have amounted to little more than a nuisance
without the massive media coverage it
received, since only modest property damage and
minor injuries were sustained. Indeed, it was not
the WTO proceedings inside the convention hall but
the violence committed by a small group of people
and the overzealous reactions of the security forces
that became the major story in the domestic and
international media.
Once again the publicity rationale undergirding
political violence had worked. Although chiding the
“corporate media” for biased reporting, the anarchists
(said to share “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski’s
antitechnology, anticonsumerism views) recognized
the value of nonstop media attention. “The WTO
protests are a watershed,” they proclaimed on one
web site (http://www.chumba.com/_gospel.htm);
“after the Battle of Seattle the anarchists will no
longer be ignored.” Although this may have been
an overly optimistic assessment, the violence for
political ends had triggered what one might call the
calculus of terrorism: extensive media coverage of
an incident that in turn results in public attention,
and, most important, reactions by decisionmakers
(in the wake of the events in Seattle, President Bill
Clinton condemned the violence but expressed
sympathies for the protesters’ environmentalist and
labor rights sentiments).
In the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
European and American anarchists resorted
to far more lethal acts of violence for reasons quite
different from those of their contemporary namesakes.
But those who threw bombs into crowded
theaters, chambers of deputies, or assassinated
prominent political figures also pursued a strategy
of “propaganda by deeds” that counted on ample
press coverage of their actions and causes. And long
before Gutenberg invented the printing press in the
fifteenth century, ancient terrorists, such as the
Zealots who targeted Roman occupiers in Palestine
as well as moderate fellow Jews (66–70 A.D.), and
the Assassins, a Shiite sect whose members fought
for the purification of Islam (1090–1275 A.D.), preferred
to commit their violent acts on holidays and
in busy locations to ensure that news of their deeds
would spread quickly and widely.
While publicity has been a central goal of most
terrorists throughout history, the means of communication
have advanced from word-of-mouth
accounts by witnesses to news reporting in the
print press, radio, newsreel, and eventually television,
which has greatly enhanced terrorists’ propaganda
capabilities. More recently, the World Wide
Web has emerged as a new and the perhaps the
most potent propaganda vehicle for terrorist
BRIGITTE L. NACOS is an adjunct associate professor of political
science at Columbia University. She is the author of Terrorism
and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the Oklahoma
City Bombing (New York: Columbia University Press,
1996) and coauthor, with Lewis J. Edinger, of From Bonn to
Berlin: German Politics in Transition (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1998).
174
groups and “lone wolves,” as well as for the advocates
of political violence.
PUBLICITY: THE LIFEBLOOD OF TERRORISM?
Terrorism experts, public officials, and even some
members of the media have blamed the mass
media—especially television—for rewarding terrorist
acts with disproportionate coverage that plays
into the hands of terrorists. Moreover, since the
most gruesome and deadly incidents receive the
greatest volume of reporting, media critics have
charged that terrorists resort to progressively bloodier
violence to satisfy the media’s appetite for shocking
news. If terrorism is seen as political theater
performed for audiences (domestic and international
publics, particular groups and individuals,
and, of course, political elites), clearly the mass
media plays a crucial role. Without massive news
coverage the terrorist act would resemble the
proverbial tree falling in the forest: if no one learned
of an incident, it would be as if it had not occurred.
For this reason, media critics have suggested that
political violence would radically decline, or even
disappear, without the media’s eagerness to highlight
terrorist acts. Publicity in the form of news
coverage is therefore perceived as the lifeblood or,
as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
put it, the “oxygen” of terrorism.
Not all experts agree on the centrality of publicity
to terrorism. Some cite examples and statistics to
establish that terrorists historically have perpetrated
violence without claiming responsibility, therefore
not advertising their motives. With the World Trade
Center bombing in 1993, the Oklahoma City federal
building bombing and the sarin gas attacks in
the Tokyo subway system in 1995, and the series of
major bombings in Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, and
Kenya in the late 1990s, this position has gained
currency among terrorist scholars. They argue that
media coverage and the desire for propaganda cannot
be important goals if terrorists do not tell their
target audiences who struck and why.
But the idea of a new “terrorism of expression”
that does not depend on publicity has weaknesses.
Classifying the World Trade Center bombing as a
milestone in the short history of so-called faceless
or “new” terrorism is inaccurate because those terrorists,
in a letter to the March 25, 1993 New York
Times, did claim responsibility for the bombing and
detailed their grievances against the United States.1
In other instances, terrorists have left important
clues that revealed their grievances and motives.
One such case was the Oklahoma City bombing.
Obviously trying to avoid arrest, Timothy McVeigh
and Terry Nichols did not claim responsibility for
the attack. Perhaps they planned to do so at a later
date, had they not been arrested so soon after the
explosion. Yet by detonating their powerful bomb
on the second anniversary of the FBI’s ill-fated raid
on a group of armed religious extremists, the
Branch Davidians, in Waco, Texas, the two ensured
that the media would explore the most likely
motive—that it was revenge for Waco—and bring
it into the public sphere.
McVeigh and Nichols probably never imagined
how well the calculus of terror would work for
them. As the mass-mediated debate—both in the
conventional media and on political talk radio and
television programs—linked the bombing of the
Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City to the
fate of the Branch Davidians, public opinion
changed radically with respect to the FBI’s actions at
Waco, which caused the death of more than 80 people.
While the vast majority of Americans (73 percent)
still approved of the FBI’s actions against the
Branch Davidians a few days after the blast in Oklahoma
City, more Americans (50 percent) criticized
than supported (43 percent) the FBI on this issue
after several weeks of intensive media reporting.
Because of this change in public sentiment, the
Oklahoma City bombers achieved that which constant
petitions and protests from right-wing circles
had not: the United States Congress promptly scheduled
and conducted hearings that revisited the Waco
case and a similarly controversial incident at Ruby
Ridge, Idaho in August 1992 in which the wife and
son of Randy Weaver, a right-wing extremist, were
killed in a confrontation with FBI agents.
Although the linkages among terrorism, media
content, effects on public opinion, and decisionmakers
are not always as obvious as in the Oklahoma
City incident, the calculus of terror has
worked well for terrorists and will continue to do
so. If nothing else, political violence—especially socalled
terrorist spectaculars—always results in
widespread news reporting and mass-mediated
debates. Even when no “rogue state,” group, or
lone-wolf extremist such as the Unabomber claims
responsibility for violent acts, the fears and anxi-
The Media’s Role in Terrorism • 175
1The FBI determined that the letter was authentic, and
established that it had been written on a typewriter found in
the possession of a member of the group that had plotted to
bomb the center. The existence of the letter might have
escaped some observers and supporters of the expressive terrorism
theory because the Times delayed publication of the
letter until the first suspects had been arrested.
eties of target societies left in the dark about their
attackers can play into the terrorists’ design.
Moreover, regardless of whether they claim
responsibility, militarily weak terrorists send forceful
messages when they strike powerful countries.
In the case of the bombings of the United States
embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, for
which no group ever claimed responsibility, the terrorist
message again was that even the world’s
remaining superpower with its vast military and
economic superiority is no more than a paper tiger
against determined terrorists.2 And in the case of
the 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system,
the Aum Shinrikyo sect did not claim responsibility
but triggered domestic and international
media coverage that sent shockwaves through Japan
and the rest of the world, creating a situation that
fit well into the cult’s end-of-the-world scenarios.
ATTENTION, RECOGNITION, RESPECTABILITY
Most terrorist groups or loners have short- and
long-term goals that transcend their publicity objectives.
Freeing
imprisoned comrades,
exacting
revenge, or creating
fear and confusion
are common
short-term
goals that can be
accomplished with a single violent act. The same
group or person may also have far a more ambitious
long-term goal—regime change or national independence,
for example—that will not occur with
one bold act of terror. To achieve these ultimate
goals, terrorists need the attention of the mass
media to manipulate, threaten, intimidate, or co-opt
the general public, specific groups and individuals,
and government officials. By resorting to more spectacular
and brutal acts and thereby heightening the
threshold of violence, terrorists are assured of substantial
press coverage.
Attention is not the only media-related terrorist
goal. Perpetrators of political violence, whether they
fight for statehood, a ban on legalized abortions, or
animal rights, also want recognition of their
grievances, causes, and demands. Finally, many
groups strive for respectability and perhaps even a
degree of legitimacy in their own society and
abroad. If a great deal of political violence is committed
to gain attention, recognition, and respectability
(and to advance through all of this the
perpetrators’ short-term and long-term objectives),
how are these goals facilitated by the media?
The free press reports, as it should, on terrorism
abroad and at home. In the aftermath of major terrorist
strikes, the media often provide a vital public
service similar to its role in the wake of natural disasters
or urban riots. Following the World Trade
Center and Oklahoma City bombings, the media—
especially local radio, television, and newspapers—
were instrumental in helping crisis managers inform
the public about emergency phone numbers, traffic
restrictions, working schedules, and donations of
goods and services. But these exemplary reporting
patterns also have another side. Because major terrorist
incidents are rich in dramatic, shocking, and
tragic human interest
aspects, the
news media tends
to overcover such
events. Communication
scholar
Shanto Iyengar
found that between
1981 and 1986 the early evening television
news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC carried 2,273
terrorism stories—more than their reports on
poverty, crime, unemployment, and racial discrimination
combined. Today the traditional news
media—television, radio, and print—face stiff competition
from the all-news cable channels, such as
CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News, and their virtually nonstop
coverage of a sensational event. As a result,
when terrorists struck in the 1990s, their actions
received even more media attention than earlier terrorist
violence.
How do terrorists fare in their attempt to win
recognition through the media? Early in his career
as a mastermind of terrorist acts, George Habash of
the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine
(PFLP) explained the reason for his activities when
he said, “We force people to ask what is going on.”
Yet terrorists also force their target audiences to ask
why they are at the receiving end of violence. The
media are the most likely sources of this information—
often by offering terrorists or their supporters
the opportunity to directly communicate their
176 • CURRENT HISTORY • April 2000
2Based on several so-called fatwas (religious edicts) that
were issued by Saudi-born suspected terrorist Osama bin
Laden in the first half of 1998 in which he called on Muslims
to kill Americans and their allies—civilian and military—in
any country where it is possible to do so, American terrorism
experts in the CIA, FBI, and other agencies linked the
bombings in Kenya and Tanzania quickly to bin Laden and
his organization, al Qaeda (the Base).
Political violence—especially so-called terrorist
spectaculars—always results in widespread news
reporting and mass-mediated debates.
grievances, causes, and objectives. Unwittingly, the
mass media thus accommodate terrorists’ desire to
advertise the reasons behind their violence. As NBC
News anchor Tom Brokaw once explained, “I think
we have to work harder to put [terrorism] into
some kind of political context, however strong or
weak that context might be.”
Media critics, especially experts on foreign policy
and national security matters who have held
high government positions and dealt with terrorism,
are not persuaded. Former Secretaries of State
Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig and former
national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski are
among those who have repeatedly criticized the
media for allowing terrorists to convey their
demands and grievances to their target societies—
a tendency that often affects and limits government
response options.3
Finally, it has been suggested that the news
media, especially television, enhance terrorists’ third
publicity goal: to gain respectability. By treating terrorists,
their sponsors, and sympathizers as legitimate
political actors, the newscasts appear to
bestow a degree of respectability on these figures—
especially when known terrorists appear with government
authorities, ambassadors, and other official
personalities. Generally, the news coverage that
plays into the respectability objective amounts to
about 1 percent of terrorism coverage. But when
terrorists and those who speak on their behalf make
themselves available to the media during a terrorist
situation, more than one-tenth the relevant television
coverage tends to fit this category.
COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY AND TERRORISM
The proliferation of television and radio channels
and, even more important, the vast technological
advances in the transmission of news broadcasts,
have greatly enhanced terrorists’ chances of achieving
their media-related goals. Two historical examples
illustrate this.
In September 1970, members of the PFLP simultaneously
hijacked four New York–bound airliners
carrying more than 600 passengers. Eventually,
three of the planes were forced to land in a remote
region of Jordan, where many of the passengers,
mostly Americans and Europeans, were held for
about three weeks. While the media in the United
States and Europe reported extensively on the
hijacking, the reporting paled in comparison to the
great attention later hijackings and hostage situations
received. The communications technology at
the time did not allow instant live transmissions
from remote locations. Satellite transmissions were
in their early stages and extremely expensive; the
live, nonstop reports that have become so common
since then were not available. For the PFLP the spectacular
hijacking was disappointing. The tense situation
did receive media, public, and government
attention, but no news organization overcovered the
situation and forced President Richard Nixon or
European heads of government to act under pressure.
More important, the recognition goal was only
slightly furthered: the mass public did not gain
greater knowledge about the plight of the Palestinians
because of the quadruple hijacking episode.
In 1972, during the Olympic Games in Munich,
members of Black September, a Palestinian terrorist
group, were far more successful in achieving the
media-centered goals that had been sought by their
PFLP brethren two years earlier. The group killed
two Israeli athletes outright and took nine others
hostage. As the deadly drama in the Olympic village
unfolded, ending with the bloody massacre of the
hostages at an airport near Munich during a rescue
attempt by German security forces, an estimated
800 million people worldwide witnessed the live
nonstop television coverage. In the process many
in the global audience learned a considerable
amount about Palestinian terrorist groups and their
motives for violence. Black September undoubtedly
chose Munich at the time of the Olympics because
the technology, equipment, and personnel were in
place to guarantee a television drama that had never
before been witnessed in the global arena.
Nearly two decades later, hand-held cameras and
new transmission technologies available to the
news media allow terrorists to strike, hold hostages,
and establish training camps without sacrificing
publicity in the form of television coverage and
especially powerful visual images. Yet while they
will continue to exploit the traditional media, present
and future terrorists are less dependent on the
media gatekeepers because of an attractive new
medium: the Internet. Web sites, message boards,
chat rooms, and e-mail offer new opportunities for
The Media’s Role in Terrorism • 177
3What amount of news content on terrorist incidents
addresses the causes and grievances of terrorists? Studies
have found that newspapers in the United States and the
United Kingdom typically devote about 10 percent of their
terrorism coverage to this particular aspect. I found similar
results when analyzing the content of American television
news. The point is not that the media are in collusion with
terrorists but rather that aggressive reporting in a highly
competitive news business facilitates the recognition goal of
terrorists who are often as media-savvy as Madison Avenue
publicity experts or spin doctors in presidential campaigns.
terrorists to convey their messages directly to audiences
everywhere, including like-minded people
and potential new recruits, the traditional media,
and the targets of their terrorist deeds and threats.
The possibilities of the Internet were first realized
in late 1996, after members of the leftist Túpac
Amaru guerrilla group infiltrated and took over the
Japanese ambassador’s compound in Peru’s capital
of Lima during a December 17 reception for 600
guests. Terrorism experts knew little or nothing
about the small Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement,
but information on the group was quickly
posted on web sites that had been established and
updated by members and supporters in North
America and Europe, who stayed in touch with the
abductors throughout the four-month ordeal
(which ended when Peruvian troops stormed the
embassy, killing the 14 guerrilla hostage-takers and
freeing unharmed 71 of the 72 remaining hostages).
At the beginning of the twenty-first century,
most, if not all, organizations perpetrating and advocating
terrorism use the Internet in some manner:
to communicate with each other, organize actions
(often through the use of passwords and encryption
to limit access to members and friends), rally supporters
and sympathizers, enlist new members,
advertise successful actions, honor fallen comrades—
especially when they have died during suicide
missions—and to convey grievances, threats,
and demands to their targets at home and abroad.
According to counterterrorism officials in the
United States government, the Saudi expatriate
Osama bin Laden and his organization al Qaeda
currently represent the greatest terrorist threat to
the United States. While bin Laden, who is the
FBI’s “Most Wanted” fugitive, has repeatedly
granted interviews to American and other Western
journalists, his views and the full text of his
various “fatwas” and declarations are available on
many Internet sites. The World Islamic Front
Statement of February 23, 1998, which was
released on the web by bin Laden and four other
leaders, contained the fatwa that proved prophetic
less than six months later when more than 300
people were killed and 5,000 injured in the bombing
of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
That edict—translated into English—remains
posted on the Internet (http://www.fas.org/irp/
world/para/docs/980223-fatwa.htm).
Domestic groups also use web sites to disseminate
and reinforce their agenda, to rally their
friends, and to frighten their foes. Even after antiabortion
extremists killed and injured physicians
and other workers at abortion clinics, some web
sites of militant prolife organizations continued to
indoctrinate, if not incite. One site (http://
www.operationrescue.org), which displays a running
counter of the number of abortions since the
Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling in 1973 and a
photo gallery of aborted fetuses, reveals the names
of “abortionists” and characterizes First Lady
Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York City Mayor
Rudy Giuliani, and others as “baby killers” because
of their prochoice positions. The site recently urged
supporters to do something against the storefront
killing centers on “Main Street,” arguing, “If you
had a mass murderer/child molester in your community
or church, wouldn’t you want to know? Join
the cry for justice and picket the communities,
clubs, churches, and offices of baby killers.”
The traditional media may carry excerpts such
as this or bin Laden’s edicts or describe the positions
of these organizations, but web sites provide
far more extensive information for the interested
public—not only in the wake of a terrorist incident
but on a continual basis. The same is true for information
that details and condemns violent political
deeds and threats.
This leaves a question: If terrorists indeed strike
to be heard in the public sphere, will political violence
subside or disappear once more people around
the globe are connected to the World Wide Web and
terrorists can circumvent the traditional media in
their quest to communicate messages directly to
friends and foes? The answer is that it is not likely in
the foreseeable future, even if the Internet community
grows more rapidly than predicted. Given the
vast number of web sites, an actual act of political
violence remains the best bet that the traditional
media will report it at great length and in the process
whet the public’s appetite to obtain more information
on the Internet. Just as business-to-consumer and
business-to-business Internet companies spend considerable
funds to advertise their existence and their
services in the traditional media, terrorists, too, need
print, radio, and television to draw attention to themselves.
After all, without the devastating bombings in
Saudi Arabia and East Africa, few people outside the
circle of his associates and sympathizers would have
had a reason to search the World Wide Web for
information on bin Laden; and without the conventional
media’s generous coverage of the “Battle of
Seattle,” few people outside the small group of likeminded
individuals would be interested in searching
the Internet for information on modern-day anarchists
in the United States and elsewhere. n
178 • CURRENT HISTORY • April 2000

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