Saturday, May 15, 2004

Terrorists, Torture and the Media

Following up on yesterday's entry, it's worth noting that, in the New York section of the New York Times today, there's an article today suggesting that the Iraqi photos also torment the estimated 400,000 survivors of foreign torture living in the United States, both by the fact that the country which provided them safe haven might also engage in such practices, as well by the photos themselves.

Another angle on this debate has to do with the media's responsibility vis-a-vis the use by terrorist organizations of gruesome images, like the recent beheading of Berg on video. Juan Cole's latest blog entry cites a thoughtful article by Matthew B. Stannard in the San Francisco Chronicle on Thursday.

While focusing on the Berg murder, it also highlights the important debate about how the "American media have yet to come to grips with their strange relationship with terrorists, according to the experts. Several commended the careful thought and soul-searching at a number of publications and broadcast outlets that preceded their publicizing the video images and the Abu Ghraib photos."

The last part of the article elaborates on this issue:

But Brigitte Nacos, adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University in New York, said the media also needed to recognize that terrorists were using them to get their message across, to spread fear and to recruit members.

"Terrorism, as I see it, is communications," said Nacos. "Without the media communicating what they want to say, terrorism doesn't really make sense."

She said the media have the responsibility to report on such events in an informative way. But for her, the key question is how much is enough -- from no mention at all to the repetition of identical disturbing images that characterized coverage of Sept. 11, Abu Ghraib and now the death of Nick Berg.

"I'm not saying the traditional media ought not to report on this," she said. "My concern is ... once you have reported it, especially on television, it is played and replayed, and I think that magnifies the impact. I think that there has to be some restraint. I'm not talking about censorship ... but there probably is a limit where you say that's enough."

Opinion on where the media should draw that line varied among the experts.

Nacos commended the New Yorker magazine for illustrating its most recent article on the Abu Ghraib scandal with just one photo -- and not the most ghastly one it had available.

Cole, who writes the influential Web log "Informed Comment," said the benchmark should be the number of people affected by an individual terrorist act -- a formula that he said should have relegated the video story to two paragraphs well inside a daily newspaper.

"(Berg's slaying) was done in order to get on the front page of the New York Times, and the New York Times should resist that temptation," he said. "I think we should be very careful about giving a lot of space and a lot of attention to what is essentially a monstrous, horrendous publicity stunt."

But other experts said the American media had a responsibility to cover the video in a significant yet proportionate way -- even if that meant risking being used by the terrorists to further their agenda.

"It's a reality," Walsh said. "The kidnapping and murdering and bombings are the reality of what is happening on the ground in Iraq. To hide that would be the greater mistake."
No one seems to complain about the fact that the 909 state-sponsored executions that have taken place in the U.S. since 1976 have not been shown live on primetime television, just as the dead bodies of the executed have not graced the covers of newsmagazines and papers.

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