When Yasir Arafat spoke at the United Nations some years ago with a gun in his belt, he was giving a performance in what has become the terrorist theater. Every schoolchild knows the script: the terrorist, Kalashnikov in hand, transfixed in the glare of the television lights as he displays his hostages before the cameras, stands as a peculiarly modem hybrid of cold- blooded killer, glib ideologue, and fast-talking advertising man. By hijacking an airliner or seizing an embassy he plays master of ceremonies at a media spectacle staged wholly to sell the legitimacy of his political cause and promote his mortal metamorphosis – the erstwhile thug emerges a “guerrilla” or, better still, a “freedom fighter.”
The power of today’s media, especially television, makes possible this violent road to legitimacy. The terrorist’s bloody theatrics lure the journalist, who exhibits the hijackings and kidnappings before the world, thereby transforming them into political statements. By providing the terrorist with a podium in exchange for a photo opportunity, by replacing what he does with what he says, the media become indispensable partners in terrorist productions.
In the discussion that follows, eight prominent journalists consider how the media can report terrorist acts without advertising terrorist causes. Two essays examining the distinction between terrorism and legitimate political violence preface the discussion.
The following Farum is based on the proceedings of the Jonathan Institute’s Second
Conference on International Terrorism, held last June in Washington, D. C.
JEANE J. KIRKPATRICK is the U.S. representative to the United Nations. Before joining the Reagan Administration she was a professor of government at Georgetown University.
The first step in understanding politics is to see things as they are, without confusion or mystification – simply to observe who does what to whom. What the terrorist does is kill, maim, kidnap, torture. His victims may be schoolchildren, travelers like those held captive in Entebbe, industrialists returning home from work, political leaders or diplomats. Terrorists’ victims may have no particular political identity, like the diners in Goldenberg’s restaurant in Paris or the. travelers passing through Lod airport in Israel, or they may be powerful political symbols, like Aldo Moro or Pope John Paul II.
The terrorist chooses violence as the instrument of first resort. Yet terrorism differs from simple crime, which can also be defined as unauthorized violence against people who are not at war. The difference lies not in the act itself, but in the terrorist’s understanding, however vague, of what he is doing. The terrorist’s motive is political in a way that the criminal’s is not. The terrorist acts in the name of some public purpose. The members of Lucky Luciano’s Murder Inc., on the other hand; acted for private purposes. John Hinckley, as I understand it, attempted to kill President Reagan for essentially private reasons. The terrorists who sprayed bullets into Goldenberg’s restaurant, like those who attempted to murder exiled Nicaraguan leader Eden Pastora, had a public goal. Terrorism is a form of political war.
Terrorism should also be distinguished from conventional war, and terrorists from soldiers. A soldier uses violence in accordance with the legally constituted authorities of his society against enemies designated by those authorities. He uses violence where a state of belligerence is recognized to exist. A terrorist engages in violence in violation of law against people who do not understand themselves to be at war. The victims of terrorist attacks are unarmed, undefended, and unwary. The crucial point is that they conceive of themselves as civilians. They do not understand that they are regarded by the terrorist as belligerents in an ongoing war. Terrorist war is part of a total war, which sees the whole of society as the enemy and all the members of society as appropriate objects for violence. It is absolute war because its goal is the absolute destruction of the old society. Terrorists are the shock troops in a war to the death against the values and institutions of a society and of the people who embody it.
The affinities between terrorism and totalitarianism are multiple. Both politicize society. The totalitarian makes society, culture, and even personality the objects of his plans and actions; the terrorist sees the whole of society as the object of his violence, his war. Both regard violence as an appropriate means to their political ends, and both use violence as the instrument of first resort. Both reject the basic moral principles of Judeo-Christian civilization. Both terrorists and totalitarians act and see themselves as acting in the name of a new morality, whose transcendent .collective ends demand the violation of conventional morality and the sacrifice of people whose membership in the old society makes them expendable. Both encourage the expression of murderous Instincts, whose repression, Freud correctly emphasized, is a precondition of civilization. The relations of both totalitarians and terrorists to others are dominated by hostile intent: the enemy is everywhere; struggle is inevitable, unending, total.
I see two important links between totalitarianism and terrorism. First, the most powerful totalitarian state of our time is also the principal supporter and sponsor of international terrorism. Second, those who pursue power by using terrorism generally aspire to form totalitarian societies. As Orwell wrote, “It is not merely that power corrupts, so also do the ways of attaining power. Therefore, all efforts to regenerate society by violent means lead to the cellars of the NKVD.” “The essential act,” he aiso wrote, “is the rejection of democracy – that is, of the underlying values of democracy. Once you have decided upon that, Stalin, or at any rate someone like Stalin, is already under way.”
Since the choice of method is the essential political act, it is hardly surprising that rulers who choose coercion as an instrument of government should see violence as the preeminent means of extending their political dominion. Beginning in the late 1960s, for example, Soviet theorists began to identify “the armed road” as the way to achieve power in the Western Hemisphere. Realizing that their own revolutionary experience could be applied elsewhere, “¢ they set about supporting terrorist groups in this hemisphere. The Bandera Roja in Venezuela, the FMLN in EI Salvador, the FSLN in Nicaragua, and the Montoneros in Argentina are just a few of the small bands of violent men who have been supported in their efforts to win power over apparently overwhelming numbers by Soviet bloc countries. These technicians in violence and propaganda are called national liberation movements. Such groups use terror to inspire fear and produce a revolutionary situation; this has become the preferred tactic in contemporary revolutionary conflict. The Russians frankly acknowledge that their support for such movements may be “decisive” – as, for example, when they say, “National liberation struggle is a form of war waged by peoples of colonial and dependent, or formerly colonial, territories, in which socialist countries [like the Soviet Union] become the decisive factor when people launch an armed struggle against internal reactionaries.” The United Nations’ acceptance of so-called national liberation movements as legitimate is as good an indicator as any of the moral confusion that has come to surround this view of violence as the preferred method of political action.
Since the 1970s, the U.N. General Assembly has passed numerous resolutions asserting its support for the right of SWAPO, the PLO, and other national liberation movements to “struggle by all means … to achieve power.” The General Assembly majority has proclaimed that these states have the right to employ violence – that terrorist violence in defense of national liberation is no crime – and has so consistently condemned countries for attempting to defend themselves against terrorist violence that an operational principle seems to have been established. The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate use of force has not so much been blurred as stood on its head. Where recognized states were once seen as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, liberation movements are now seen as having such a monopoly.
The intellectual and moral confusion has become very serious. Unable to distinguish between force used to liberate and force used to enslave, a majority of nations in the U.N. regard legitimacy as a function of the will and power exercised on behalf of national liberation movements. Yet we know better. We know it cannot be that terror wreaked on a civilian population by a revolutionary movement is liberation, while violence committed by a government responding to a guerrilla threat is repression.
There is one last affinity between totalitarianism and terrorism. Both attempt to confuse as well as to terrorize. Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and others have said that in totalitarian societies, violence is used to maintain a system of lies, and lies are used to justify relations based on violence. Violence can be used to close a society. Lies can be used to veil the violence – to call open that which is closed, true that which is false, insane he who raises questions. Violence, as Solzhenitsyn emphasized, is the opposite of peace. It is war. Finding the courage to face the truth and speak about it is surely the first step toward the defeat of those who would destroy our freedom and our world.
LESZEK KOLAKOWSKI was far many years a professar of the history of philosophy at the University of Warsaw. Since being expelled from the university in 1968 for political reasons, he has taught mostly in England and the United States, and currently divides his time between All Souls College, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. His books include the three-volume study Main Currents of Marxism and Religion.
Defining terrorism clearly so as to distinguish between terrorist acts and justified political violence is often difficult today. Partly this results from the general degradation of our political language – the lines between “liberation” and “invasion,” “freedom” and “slavery,” “democracy” and “tyranny” have likewise been obscured. In the nineteenth century it was clear what terrorism was: assassination campaigns directed at government officials by opposition groups (such as the anarchists and populists in Russia) who aimed to undermine the established power. Indeed, these terrorists applied the term to themselves. Nowadays, of course, no one admits to being a terrorist, just as no one admits to opposing freedom, peace, and democracy.
Our uncertainty about when to apply the word “terrorist” is the reverse side of our confusion about the concept of legitimacy. Democratic states are compelled by the international situation to recognize the legitimacy of many despotic regimes – some of which sponsor terrorism – and have thus themselves helped to obscure the distinction between recognizing a government (which implies merely that it is effectively in control of a country) and recognizing the legitimacy of that government (which implies a popular mandate). Many states that have emerged since the war, especially those in the Third World, have never known anything resembling democratic politics; in some, politicians have traditionally competed with one another by assassinating their rivals. Communism provides an easy path to ideological legitimacy for many of these regimes, whether they are communist or not. As understood in communist doctrine, legitimacy does not derive from any mechanism whereby society confers power on any group or individual, but is purely ideological: those in power simply declare that they embody the interests and aspirations of the people, of the nation, of all mankind, regardless of whether they can offer any proof to support these claims. The very existence of the United Nations, which includes among its members some clearly gangster states, is not helpful in this respect, for it confers on all members the same international legitimacy. And there exists no effective mechanism whereby states that practice international terrorism can be branded as international outlaws.
Since the distinction between these two kinds of recognition has become unclear, when a state employs terror its legitimacy is not weakened in the opinion of other states, The distinction therefore becomes blurred as well between the sometimes violent struggle against oppression and despotism, on the one hand, and terrorism aimed at the destruction of democratic institutions, on the other. And so the armed struggle of the underground partisans against the Nazi occupation, for example, was perfectly legitimate, because the rule of the invaders had no legitimacy whatsoever.
Modern totalitarianism has also helped muddle the question of legitimacy. Rather than establish a particularly cruel and repressive law, totalitarian states effectively abolish law altogether. What is characteristic of totalitarianism is a form of law consisting of lawlessness – that is, the law’s independence as a mediator between society and the state is destroyed. Legal codes, especially those that apply to political matters, are deliberately vague, designed to give a free hand to the executive power (which is identical to the legislative and judicial powers) in jailing or killing anyone it wishes. Thus the worst atrocities committed by the Soviet government against its own people, including the genocide during Stalin’s regime, have been for the most part entirely legal. Although state terror has been considerably restricted since Stalin’s time, the principle that the law cannot restrict the prerogatives of the executive has never been abrogated. Since the legitimacy of the overwhelming power of the state rests entirely on ideology (“We rule because we express the historical interests of the society, of the working class, of the nation,” etc. ), the ideology itself is absolutely essential, whether anyone takes it seriously or not. The ruling power is always right in its struggles against all enemies, internal or external, real or imagined. Therefore, terrorism against other states – whether it involves assassinating troublesome defectors or even foreign leaders such as the pope – is always justified.
Communist countries, with some obvious exceptions (Russia and Poland during the early years of communist rule, Hungary during the revolution), have never experienced terrorism directed against the state. The only organized, democratic resistance that has ever existed in a communist country – Solidarity in Poland in 1980-81 – never employed violence against the state, although it had the practical means to do so. All the political violence in Poland was employed by the government. In part the efficiency and size of the secret police in cornmunist countries accounts for the relative absence of terrorism there. The openness of democratic societies, by contrast, not only allows terrorists easy access to arms and false documents and gives them relative freedom of movement, it makes their job less dangerous – if they are caught, they are rarely tortured or executed. But there is an ideological reason as well: the very existence of democratic legitimacy is intolerable to totalitarian regimes. It is not the supposed military threat or the widely cited feelings of “insecurity” which compel the Soviet Union to try to destroy democratic institutions all over the world. It is the simple fact that the ideological legitimacy of the communist power system must always appear grotesque so long as democratic countries exist.
But there remain painful problems in defining legitimacy today; criteria that would be universally applicable are difficult to find. In many countries, it is impossible to determine the degree of popular support enjoyed by the government. And in any case, some cruel or despotic systems may be popular, at least for a time, and can therefore make claims to legitimacy. This was certainly true for some years in Nazi Germany; Iran’s barbarous theocracy could today make similar claims. But the concept is clear enough when political violence is directed against countries where legal forms exist for political opposition to operate openly and for political conflict to be resolved, and where the rights of minorities are respected. Terror directed against the legitimate authorities in such a state amounts to a declaration of civil war and should be treated accordingly. Political violence directed against one state by another constitutes a declaration of war and should be treated accordingly.
Terrorism and the Media: A Discussion
is anchorman of the ABC News programs Nightline and Viewpoint.
He served as moderatorof this discussion.NORMAN PODHORETZ
is the editor of Commentary. His books include
Why We Were in Vietnam and The Present Danger.CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
is a senior editor of the New Republic and a contributing essayist at Time.
is a professor of the history of Russian culture at the
Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris and a columnist for L’Express.
is an assistant editor and columnist at the London Daily Telegraph
and a former editor of Policy Review.
is senior correspondent of Cable News Network and author of Clearing the Air.
is a columnist whose articles appear regularly in
Newsweek, the Washington Post, and 400
other newspapers across the country.
is an assistant managing editor of the Washington Post and
co-author of All the President’s Men and The Brethren.
TED KOPPEL: Let me put forward the proposition that the media, particularly television, and terrorists need one another, that they have what is fundamentally a symbiotic relationship. Without television, terrorism becomes rather like the philosopher’s hypothetical tree falling in the forest: no one hears it fall and therefore it has no reason for being. And television without terrorism, while not deprived of all interesting things in the world, is nonetheless deprived of one of the most interesting.
NORMAN PODHORETZ: Certainly terrorists and the media have had a symbiotic relationship, which has helped give the lie to those pious proclamations on the editorial pages that organizations like the PLO, by engaging in terrorism, hurt their own cause. On the contrary, it is clear that, for a long time, because of this symbiotic relationship, the power and influence of
such organizations increased with each new terrorist act. In the last few years, however, this relationship has been disrupted by what I call Robert Nisbet’s law, which states that boredom is the most underrated force in human affairs. After the 1O,OOOth hijacking or wanton assassination, the media have become bored, and their coverage has accordingly declined. Much less attention is paid to terrorist episodes these days than even five years ago. Insofar as this prevents terrorist organizations from achieving their principal objective, which is to get a lot of publicity, this development is good news. But it also indicates how accustomed the public has grown to these acts: we are no longer as horrified by them as we should be. Terrorist outrages are now taken for granted, as are the subtle exculpations that the media help propagate; for example, that terrorism represents a protest against intolerable social conditions or that it is a form of guerrilla warfare. Such exculpations have so taken hold that they now
govern the public’s response to terrorism.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER; I think Mr. Podhoretz is right in saying that a kind of boredom is setting in. Airplane hijackings, for example, are now covered on the inside pages of most newspapers. But terrorists are rather resourceful about creating new theatrical productions; every year or two they come up with a new variant that captures the media’s imagination. The most recent innovation is the suicide bombing, such as the attack on the American marines in Lebanon and on the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait.
But we should remember that not all terrorism is dependent on the media. When we discuss terrorism we are really talking about at least three different kinds of political violence. The first and oldest kind is assassination, the usual form of political violence before World War II. The political assassin does not need the media to explain what his act means; in fact, often he does not want publicity at all. His object is simply to eliminate a political actor.
The second form of terrorism, which emerged after the war, is the random attack on civilians, but civilians of a particular type-civilians who are members of the enemy class or nationality. Terrorism of this sort, as practiced, for example, by the FLN in Algeria in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is also independent of the media. Its object is to demoralize the enemy during a war, and its audience is the victim himself and his compatriots. In the case of Algeria, it was the pieds noirs, the French living there.
The third and newest form of terrorism, which the PLO largely created after 1968, is the random attack on anyone. We might refer to this as “media terrorism,” for it can exist only if there is an interpreter to give it meaning. The terrorist acts of the FLO were not intended to
demoralize the Israelis-the PLO has never really been at war with Israel – but to publicize political grievances. And the intended audience was not the immediate victims – the airline passengers – or even the Israelis, but the entire world. For such actions, coverage by the mass media becomes absolutely essential. This is where terrorists’ utter dependence on the media begins.
Media terrorism – such as the 1975 murder of three Dutchmen who happened to be on a commuter train hijacked by Moluccans, or the 1976 seizure of Yugoslavian hostages by Croatian terrorists – is a form of political advertising. In the latter instance, the Croatians demanded that U.S. newspapers publish their manifesto. Since the outlaws cannot buy television time, they have to earn it through terrorist acts. Like the sponsors of early television who produced shows as vehicles for their commercials, media terrorists now provide drama – murder and kidnapping, live-in return for advertising time.
The media’s responsibility to act with self-restraint is obviously greatest with this kind of terrorism. In those cases where the victim is chosen at random and has no connection whatever with any political struggle, terrorism is actually a lure to attract the media. Through his acts, the terrorist tries to earn a stage on which to proclaim his message. And the media then take upon themselves the duty of interpreting those acts. In 1979, for example, terrorists attacked the American Embassy in Beirut with grenades. One network correspondent explained that this action was “perhaps an expression of resentment and frustration” on the part of Palestinians over the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Here we reach a level where an attack on innocents is rationalized as a psychological necessity. Or consider the attack on a bus near Tel Aviv last April: it was generally explained as the PLO’s assertion that it still existed after its expulsion from Lebanon, a kind of “I kill, therefore I am.” Without the press to carry this message, the act would have been meaningless; in fact, since it had no military or political purpose, it probably would not have been committed in the first place. I believe that when the point of a terrorist attack is to force the media to function as interpreters, the media have a heavy responsibility not to do the interpreting.
KOPPEL: You mentioned Algeria. Perhaps Mr. Besancon could tell us whether there was censorship in France with regard to the terrorism in Algeria. To what degree was the French press manipulated by the government or by the terrorist groups?
ALAIN BESANCON; There was no real censorship in France during the war in Algeria, in spite of the widespread terrorism there. With a few exceptions, those who favored Algerian independence expressed themselves freely. I was a young man at the beginning of the war, serving in the French army. I favored independence for Algeria, but mainly to protect the democratic structure of France. For what ultimately made terrorism possible during the war – and the situation was similar for England during the conflict in Ireland in the 1920s – what made terrorism possible was the democratic system of the parent nations. England had to choose between remaining democratic or holding on to Ireland. France had to choose between remaining democratic or holding on to Algeria.
KOPPEL: Mr. O’Sullivan, would you comment on the conflict that arises when a democracy confronts terrorism: Does one oppose terrorism by using methods that are nondemocratic such as censoring the press – or by so doing does one undermine democracy itself?
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: If we consider the terrorism in Northern Ireland for a moment, quite plainly certain prohibitions apply that are not part and parcel of the normal rule of law. For example, although there are no serious restrictions on the press or television in Britain, there is a very important restriction on television in the Irish Republic. This directive, issued, by the way, by Conor Cruise O’Brien when he was minister of posts and telegraphs, forbids the broadcasting of interviews with IRA members. Why is this? Because, as Dr. O’Brien said, “We in the Irish
state regard the appearance of terrorists on television as an incitement to murder.” The incitement is addressed not so much to the general public as to other terrorists arid potential terrorists. Such appearances glamorize these people. Since they have little support among the population; they could not give their views on television and be treated respectfully if they had not engaged in a campaign of murder.
Television is a leveling and homogenizing medium. It is very difficult to interview terrorists without presenting them not as a species of criminal but as a species of politician. You may try to interview a terrorist toughly, to ask searching questions and make plain that he is a murderer, and yet it is.difficult to imagine how anyone could be grilled more toughly than, say, Dan Rather grilled Mr. Nixon. I myself am perfectly prepared to support a ban on interviews with terrorists in Northern Ireland, since the only justification advanced for such interviews – namely, that we need to know what the terrorists’ views are – is absurd. We know what their views are before they ever appear on television.
KOPPEL: Dan Schorr, can such limits on the media be legitimately imposed in a democracy?
DANIEL SCHORR: Let me say first, Ted, that it’s entirely appropriate that you preside over this discussion, since you are one of the few Americans, along with Ronald Reagan, whose career has benefited from terrorist activities. I’m referring, of course, to ABC’s extensive coverage of the seizure of the American hostages in Iran in 1979. What Charles Krautharnmer said is true: there was terrorism before there was television. Lincoln was assassinated in the Ford Theater, the archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo, and television wasn’t there, although I am sure it would like to have been. But in our society television and violence have a mutual attraction that is very, very dangerous. Television has become the arbiter of who is important, who has identity. Many people have found that the royal road to identity is to do something violent. Television has a love affair with drama and a love affair with violence. We must find some way to keep this love affair under control. Consider what happened here in Washington in 1977 when the Hanafi Muslims seized the B’nai B’rith building and held 134 people hostage. Now that was certainly a great story. But was it necessary to have round-the-clock coverage by all the local television stations? The leader of the Hanafi Muslims, holed up in the B’nai B’rith building with his hostages, spent his time watching himself on television. At one point he called his wife to ask, “How am I doing?”
Media terrorism is primarily a television problem. Being on television confers a kind of reality on people, much more so than being written about in the newspaper. But what should TV journalists do? Not cover terrorist events? Well, obviously not – we are in the news business. But we don’t have to provide live coverage when nothing is really happening. We don’t have to telephone terrorists and ask them to give live interviews. I suggest that we in the news business impose some voluntary limits, because if we don’t, there may come a time when they are imposed on us.
GEORGE WILL: To think that the press holds the key to the problem of terrorism is not uncustomary narcissism on the part of the journalistic profession. What can we really do to diminish the incentive for publicity? I suggest it’s precious little. If terrorists take over an embassy in the center of London or seize an American ambassador or shoot a pope, people are going to notice. It doesn’t matter whether you have a policy about how many hours you’re on the air. Terrorists will achieve their magnifying effect, which is what they use the media for. And in a country that is blessed – or, depending on your point of view, afflicted – with a First Amendment, it is quite impossible, given how the law has recently been construed, to enforce any kind of prior restraint. Absent enforcement from a fourth party, the competition between the three major networks virtually guarantees that there will be maximum coverage of anything spectacular and telegenic.
Perhaps one problem lies in our definition of the term “terrorist.” I don’t think we ought to say that John Wilkes Booth or Gavrilo Princip were terrorists, although certainly they had political aims. The dominant kind of terrorism today, the kind we should be discussing, is what Secretary of State Shultz has called state-sponsored terrorism. Such terrorism is used by certain states as an instrument of rational policy; it is not a television psychodrama, and thus is far beyond the capacity of journalists to deal with. And it is only the beginning of clarity to understand that just as revolutions are made not by bad water or bad schools or hungry people but by revolutionaries, so terrorism is made not by television but by terrorists. Terrorists make terrorism for the same reason people make potato chips – it pays. When it doesn’t pay, they’ll quit making potato chips and they’ll quit making terrorism. And I think it would be a mistake to assume that the public is apt to grow bored very soon. The “Indiana Jones phenomenon” will undoubtedly come to affect terrorism that is, just when the senses of the public seem saturated, terrorists will find new ways to lacerate people’s sensibilities.
BOB WOODWARD: First of all, I don’t think we are talking only about television, as Daniel Schorr said. We have to ask ourselves what sort of terrorism is politically most significant. I agree with George Will that it is the state-supported variety, and I think television is largely irrelevant to that. Consider the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel in Lebanon in 1982. American intelligence agencies have established that the assassination was carried out by Syrian intelligence officers, and a credible case can be made that President Assad of Syria ordered it. Now this was a very alarming event. It changed the history and the politics of Lebanon. You don’t need television to convey its importance, and the same can be said about the bombing of the marines in Beirut. The importance of the bombing was its military effect, not the fact that it was spectacular TV. I think the journalist’s role in covering such events, whether he is a television reporter or a newspaper reporter, remains the traditional one – finding out who is responsible for them and then broadcasting or printing that information.
BESANCON: Perhaps our real problem here is not so much defining terrorism as understanding the effect that terrorism publicized by the media can have on society. After all, most terrorism is undertaken in order to arouse the sympathy of society. So the question involves not simply journalism but the basic philosophical assumptions that are shared by the leaders of the cultural establishment. The ideology of most terrorist groups holds that capitalist society is doomed and does not deserve to be defended, that from its destruction something more worthwhile will emerge. This was the philosophy of the first large-scale terrorist movement, that of the Russian populists in the 1880s. Even Tolstoy, who espoused nonviolence, admired the ideas behind this movement. Or consider Jean-Paul Sartre. During his long life, Sartre advocated the terrorism of the FLN in Algeria, the terrorism of the Baader- Meinhof gang in Germany, the terrorism of the Red Brigades in Italy – he believed that there was a continuity between the eschatological hope of the terrorist and the reasonable need we all recognize to correct the flaws that exist in our society. I think this kind of sublime morality is very widespread and very difficult to eradicate. It is beyond the ability of the media to do so. This belief is most common among the highly educated, and it is from this group that most journalists and the leaders of the so-called cultural establishment are drawn.
O’SULLIVAN: This panel is composed of journalists from what is called the quality press. I suggest that the reporting on terrorism in the so-called popular press is much more accurate than it is in the more serious newspapers. Let’s consider how each would describe an IRA bombing attack.
Popular newspapers like the New York Post or the Daily Mail in England would say: “A shy 21- year-old girl, whose only interest in life is tennis, was last night fighting for her life in a London hospital after being blown up in a restaurant by an IRA bomb. By her bedside was her fiance, Gordon Williamson, 23. ‘She didn’t have an enemy in the world,’ he said.
The New York Times or the Guardian would report something quite different: “Two people were killed and one injured in an IRA explosion in London iast night. Government sources interpreted the explosion as a response to the government’s decision to introduce a bill increasing parliamentary representation for Ulster. Sources in Belfast believed to be close to the IRA said that the attack was the start of a major campaign in which targets on the British mainland would not be exempt.”
The assumption of the popular press is that terrorists are important for what they do. The assumption of the quality press is that terrorists are important for what they say. I suggest that the first assumption is much more sensible.
ALAN CHALFONT:’ Perhaps the real problem with the media, or at least with the quality press, is its tendency to adopt a position of magisterial objectivity between our society and those attacking it. Norman Podhoretz said that the media subtly excuse certain terrorist acts by implying that they arise out of intolerable social conditions or intolerable oppression. We see these justifications as well in the media’s tendency to equate the actions of legitimate governments, such as that in EI Salvador, in fighting terrorists and revolutionaries with the activities of the terrorists themselves. Can we not simply accept the fact that we are at war with international terrorism, that there are two sides, ours and theirs? If their side prevails, our freedoms will disappear, and the first freedom to go will be freedom of the press. Is it too much to ask that, in a free society at war with international terrorism, the press should be on our side?
KRAUTHAMMER: Yes, it is too much to ask. Unless the press takes the position that terrorism defined as the indiscriminate attack on innocents to achieve political ends – is absolutely indefensible, a moral corruption begins that is irreversible. If we compromise that principle, then our profession that we stand for certain Lord Chalfont, a former minister in the British Foreign Office, writes widely on international affairs. His books include The Sword and the Spirit, an analysis of U.S. miltary power values is hollow, because high among those values is the belief that civilians ought to be exempt from attack. If there are people on our side who engage in the murder of civilians – for example, the gangsters who practice terrorism in EI Salvador – they have to be condemned with as much vigor as those who do it in the name of another ideology.
Nonetheless it is true that the media have to change their rules when dealing with terrorism, because the terrorist act is of a different empirical reality than other events. In physics, the Heisenberg principle says that events are changed by being observed. The media have an obligation to apply their own Heisenberg principle. Journalists must recognize that there exists a unique class of political events, media terrorism; these acts acquire importance by, and often are undertaken with the sole intention of, being broadcast over the media. Because of the symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorist acts, because these acts are created or at least greatly amplified by media coverage, journalists must exercise self-restraint – call it censorship if you like. The rule.of thumb I propose is this: In covering terrorist-events, reporters ought to concentrate on who, what, where, and when. They should leave the question of why to the historians and the psychiatrists.
WOODWARD: I don’t think any journalist would want to eliminate the “whys” from any story.
SCHORR: We’ve been talking as if the problem is undue interference by the media, whereas the problem is really how terrorists manipulate the media. People who feel that the newspapers they read and the television news they watch should reflect their own personal views are making a very grave mistake. If we adopt this line of thinking, we will eventually have, the kind of press that exists in Paris – a partisan press, in which everyone can find his own views reflected in his newspaper.
What is the responsibility of the press in covering terrorism? If a representative of a terrorist group approaches the Washington Post and says, “I want to try to explain to you who we are and what we are,” Bob Woodward can write a gripping story describing who the terrorists are and what they believe. By writing this story he does not prevent the police from taking action against them. But if the government then forces him to betray the confidence that made the story possible, while a few people may be arrested, he will never get that kind of story again. Some of us still believe that journalists are people committed to the idea that the world must know. We believe that our job is to explain who terrorists are-whether they are right-wing terrorists or left-wing terrorists-without accepting the view of anyone side. The free press can be destroyed very easily if it is polarized in the way that some have suggested here. We should examine the press in countries where it tries to satisfy the prejudices of particular groups – in France, the Soviet Union, Syria – before we start making new rules for ourselves.
WILL: I agree with Charles Krauthammer that we should apply a sort of Heisenberg principle to the media. We in the media do effectively observe, but what we tend to observe, more often than events themselves, is the observers. We have heard today that the press has a double standard in covering terrorism. I think the alarming news is that there is a single standard, a wrong standard. You cannot underestimate the degree to which both sides, liberal and conservative, have a common view of the world that they simply cannot bear to have challenged. The view involves denial of the undeniable the fact that we are under assault from the Soviet Union. That is how I read Claire Sterling’s book on international terrorism, The Terror Network. Very few people, of whatever political persuasion, are willing to accept the reality of international terrorism. Our whole political culture has an enormous intellectual and psychological and emotional investment in a view of the world that international terrorism challenges. The media did not create this view; they merely serve to reflect the larger culture in which it is embedded.
PODHORETZ: It has been said that the media should change the rules. I submit that the rules have already been changed. Some years back, the attitudes of the popular press that John O’Sullivan described were prevalent in the quality press as well. There was a time when our political culture was in fact a partisan of our side, when the journalist’s role as a citizen did not conflict with his professional role. But in the later years of the Vietnam War this began to change. The passionate speeches we hear about objectivity and freedom of the press ring rather hollow today, because there is very little objectivity in the reporting of terrorist acts. Very often the terms that are used to characterize terrorists reveal a mindless bias-when Yasir Arafat is referred to as a moderate, for example. The media have become the most prominent exponents of these attitudes in the larger political culture, and I think this accounts for the widespread resentment of the press and TV. Many, many people, including myself, feel that the media are unsympathetic to our side in the struggle against totalitarianism and totalitarian communism.
KRAUTHAMMER: I find George Will uncharacteristically modest as to the importance and influence of the media. There can be no question that the development of enormously powerful communications technology, and the fact that this technology is in the hands of people who believe in competing with one another to get a good story, have produced a new phenomenon. The American hostages would not have been held so long had the Iranians not realized that they had created the most effective television stage in history, which gave them immediate access to millions of people. The Iranians exploited the hostage crisis in a way that they could not have done in the absence of television cameras.
Now, I want to give an example of the sort of media self-restraint that I am suggesting. In the late 1970s, there was a rash of episodes in which spectators at sporting events jumped out onto the playing field for their fifteen seconds of exposure on national television. After a number of these episodes, some of the networks decided to tum the cameras away. Instead, a reporter would say, “There’s someone running out onto the field, but we won’t show him to you because if we do, it will encourage other clowns to do the same thing.” Now, when you hear the crowd cheering as the clowns are being chased off the field, you really want to see what is happening. But clearly it is worth forgoing that pleasure in order to gain a greater societal good – the nondisruption of future ball games. I think media executives should exercise the same self-restraint in covering terrorism, when the societal good to be gained is reducing the incentive to political murder.
KOPPEL: There is a great need to be aware of the proper roles in our society of journalists as well as of political leaders. When our leaders don’t play the roles they should be playing, then the media is put in a totally irrational position. After all, it is not the job of the media to censor itself. Vietnam was mentioned a few minutes ago. Press censorship was never imposed during the Vietnam War because President Johnson was unwilling to pay the political price of a declaration of war. If indeed our leaders believe that we are in a state of war, then let it be declared. Once war is declared, then all kinds of societal pressures, and indeed legal pressures, come to bear on the media to play a different role than the one it plays right now.
But I urge you not to be in too much of a hurry to change the role that we in the media play, because once it has been changed, even for reasons that now seem valid, it may be difficult to change it back when the reasons are no longer so valid.