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Terrorism and mass media

Reader comment on item: Television in Time of War

Submitted by Stephen Schwartz (United States), Aug 4, 2005 at 15:56

The issue of how mass media report on terrorism is not a new one. In the 1920s, when Irish terrorism struck the nascent Irish Free State, and with the IRA bombing campaigns in Britain at the end of the 1930s, the governments in question restricted the manner of reporting so as not to either inflame or excessively frighten the public, or let the terrorists use mass media as a forum. Today, of course, with Al-Jazeera and other Arab media serving as agents for the murderers, these problems are more acute... but unfortunately, media executives have responded poorly. Many of today's Western journalists (I say this as a working journalist and former Newspaper Guild officer) unfortunately prefer to err on the side of providing terrorists with a platform.

Nevertheless, to cite some precedents (a basic Islamic practice): the Irish government long forbade the use of the term "bomb" in newspapers, giving rise to gruesome jokes about the euphemisms used to describe an explosive device. The Irish and British, as Pipes notes, have both restricted the access of Irish terrorists to mass media. The ban mentioned by Conor O'Brien was extended to British media, which also barred Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein spokespeople.

Perhaps even more illustrative have been the policies of the Spanish state, before and after the death of Franco. Spain today is a democratic monarchy, but it does not permit Basque and related terrorists to use media as a public forum. Newspapers can be shut down for publishing terrorist communiques. In 2003, the Basque daily Egin was closed and some of its staff arrested for colluding with the terrorist ETA organization.

On the question of journalists "taking sides:" objectivity means accuracy, not neutrality. Journalists who do not take sides against terrorists who want to destroy them, their families, their professions, and their societies are not journalists; they are typists. Once can hardly imagine William L. Shirer or Edward R. Murrow reporting on Nazism in 1940 the way media report on Islamist terrorism today. Like the Christian bumpersticker that asks WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) today's journalists should ask themselves WWED (What Would Edward R. Murrow Do?) Can we imagine Murrow, from London, broadcasting "impartially" about Nazi propaganda against the democracies?

Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to incite violence. As for people like the mentioned Maoist atheist who now claims to speak for Islam -- he and another prominent Arab American spokesman should be boycotted on television because they are insulting, defamatory, rude, and filibustering, aside from their objectionable views.

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