Richard J. Eisendorf
To date, more than 50 captives from the United States, Canada and 11
other countries in Europe and Asia have been kidnapped in Iraq -- many
threatened with beheading. And the media are unwittingly feeding this frenzy
of brutal terror.
Many nations adopted a stated posture of never negotiating with
This derives from one undisputed fact: By negating the validity of the
kidnappers, governments disempower those who would use kidnapping as a
But today's kidnappings come with an added twist. They are accompanied by
well-strategized, macabre public-relations campaigns, carefully orchestrated
to instill fear -- with the goal of persuading national leaders to pull out
Media all over the world hang on the kidnappers' every word, amplifying
their message and handing them a victory far greater than the direct impact
of their brutal act.
Diplomatically, media attention has replaced negotiation as the
reward. Whether their objectives -- of turning people and governments
against their continued involvement in Iraq -- is furthered or not through
this attention, the terrorists feel that they have achieved a victory. Thus,
the coverage reinforces the continued use of their murderous tactics.
Journalistically, by trotting out the propaganda handed to them, media
worldwide fall far short of responsible reporting. Good journalism calls for
journalists to report on events independently, to interview the subjects, to
probe their motives and incentives. Feeding a tape based on the brutal
sacrifice of a human being is beyond irresponsible. It abets the murders. It
clearly leads to more kidnappings and more brutal deaths.
The United States has done some stupid things in Iraq; notably, the
behavior of American guards in Abu Ghraib has brought shame on the United
States and its professed goal of bringing democracy to Iraq. Those images
rightly went public and the media have since delved into the abuses with the
tenacity that good journalism is known for. The coverage may in part be
responsible for an increase in Iraqi insurgent violence, but it is an
example of free media providing a necessary check on government excesses.
Is it not a cynical irony that American television stations would not air
British interviews with Monica Lewinsky because they violate a tenet of
journalism ethics not to pay for interviews, but they willingly air the
propaganda videos produced by hooded gunmen reading prepared statements and
forcing their victims to beg for their lives?
Journalism and societal ethics draw the line at showing the actual murder
and the slayers proudly displaying the victim's head. That line should be
pulled back even further. Disarm the terrorists by not giving them the
platform from which to conduct their killing diplomacy.
If, in the name of balance, media insist on showing anything, then let us
see it all. We are fed a stream of images of hooded armed men standing over
their victim. We are subjected to their demands and political agendas. The
kidnappers are granted our good graces of free expression rationalized by
our desire to show the whole story. Yet, by parading these images over and
over, are we showing the whole story?
Eddie Adams' famous 1968 photo of a South Vietnamese general executing a
Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon became a symbol for the Vietnam war. Would that
picture have carried much meaning if it were only a threat to kill, followed
by a news report that a man had been killed? Clearly not.
When the hooded gunman goes from propagandist to murderer, sawing off the
head of his chosen victim, we shield our eyes. We are protected from the
acts that are considered too barbaric -- and that show the brutality of the
captors. If media ethics misguidedly insist on showing us anything, then
show us the whole picture and let us decide whether we are outraged or
convinced by their political statement.
If diplomatic sense takes hold, however, and if media ethics and human
values will not allow the gruesome details to be shown, then do us all the
favor by showing us nothing at all. Not the forced pleadings of the victims.
Not the well-crafted political propaganda. Not the made-for-TV execution
Disarm the terrorists by taking away their most valuable weapon: their
control over the media.