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E-Political Socialization, the Press and Politics

The Media and Government in the USA, Europe and China


Edited By Christ´l De Landtsheer, Russell Farnen and Daniel B. German

This book examines the state of print and electronic media in the United States of America, Europe, and China. The latest mass communication advances demonstrate that we live in an increasingly media-centric world. The chapters include theoretical and empirical studies that shed light on the meaning of this development. The trajectory of people’s move to electronic communication is a global phenomenon affecting their daily life. Does this trend aid or impede democracy? Is there an emerging digital divide contributing to an increasing gap between the rich and poor people and nations? The four parts of this book explore various aspects of political socialization and its relationship with different media, including print, broadcasting, and the Internet.
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13 Media and Terrorists

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Chapter 13

Media and Terrorists

Russell F. Farnen

Professor (Emeritus) of Political Science, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA


The public role of the mass media in most Western industrialized societies is (in addition to making a profit) to inform and educate citizens in the ways of democracy. By contrast, the goal of organized terrorists groups is to upset these orderly processes and to achieve private usually unpopular, political and informational goals. Along the way, these violent groups use and abuse the media and the state. Thy, in turn, are reciprocally used and abused in the process.

Both terrorism’s and media’s roles, techniques, and expectations are explained and the media-terrorist interactive system described. A case study of the Italian Red Brigades’ (Brigate Rosse or BR) 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro is presented for illustrative purposes. Some conclusions and suggestions for changing the cycle-of-violence system through media, governmental, diplomatic, and rhetorical reforms are also offered for consideration in the context of future public/media policymaking and publicizing terrorism for informational, rather than exploitative, purposes.


In addition to making a profit, the public role of the mass media in most Western industrialized societies is to inform and educate citizens in the ways of democracy. By contrast, the goal of organized terrorist groups is to upset these orderly processes and to achieve private, usually unpopular, political and informational goals. Along the way, these violent groups use and abuse the media and the state, and they are reciprocally used and abused. Media become witting and unwitting winners and losers in this process, which shares elements of both a game and a drama. In order to perform their controlling and socially reinforcing role in the communications processes, media must regularly capture the public’s attention (i.e., they must force the public to digest important news and consumer information). Therefore, media seduce consumers with sports, comics, human-interest stories, crime, scare headlines, and enticingly violent leads.

Although Accuracy in the Media, The Moral Majority, Conservative Digest, Media Monitor, and the New Right Report regularly attack the alleged liberalism of the three major networks, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), National Public Radio (NPR), and major newspapers (e.g., the Washington Post and the New York Times), this so-called liberal slant is illusory. NPR may be unique in more severely criticizing Republican rather than Democratic presidents from 1974 to 1983, but most major newspapers and all of the networks are more noteworthy for their uniform criticism of all presidents, regardless of party stripe, their quest of middle ← 251 | 252 → of-the-road positions on partisan political questions, and their avoidance of entanglement in current public policy disputes (Larson, Spring 1989). The mass media in America are mainstream in ideology and strongly establishment-oriented, as are other large American corporations. For example, during the conservative resurgence from 1972 to 1984, between 42% and 71% of the major American newspapers (which controlled between 49% and 77% of total newspaper circulation) endorsed the more-conservative Republican presidential candidate. This is in contrast to the 5-12% that endorsed the less-conservative Democratic presidential candidate and the 23-42% that remained uncommitted during this same 12-year period (Stanley and Niemi, 1988).

Above all, media (using Ben Bagdikian’s term) employ the so-called twin sovereigns to get attention: sex and violence (Bagdikian, 1987). They stress murders, rapes, robberies, and other deviant, unusual, and “abnormal” events, each unique in its own way. Since the media have an unquenchable thirst for unsavory violence and “man bites dog” stories, militant groups find them easy targets for manipulation. But the reverse is also true. While television, newspapers, magazines, and radio could exist without as much violence in their daily diets, the products, appeal, and nature of the mass media would change and their effects would probably be minimized.

Terrorism could not exist in its present form without a mass audience. Without widespread popular exposure, the very nature of the terrorist phenomenon would radically change. Indeed, what we know as terrorism is actually a media creation; mass media define, delimit, delegitimize, and discredit events that we have not actually seen, but that we all instantly recognize as terrorist acts.

The influence of television, within its mass media setting, can be approached through a variety of theoretical constructs. These theories help to explain why people pay attention to and use new media. Harold Lasswell’s post-1945 model of the communications process maintained that the more personal the communication, the greater the effect. Therefore, personal communication is more effective than television, which (in turn) is more effective than film, radio, or print media. Klapper’s (1960, pp. 8, 55, 92-97) subsequent work recognized the fact that previous exposure to issues was a significant intervening variable. He also described selective information processing and the conversion process. Those media seeking to promote change had a direct effect, were reinforced positively, or were neutralized by other mediating factors, which produced change in different directions.

Later, in the same decade, uses and gratification theory stressed the recipient of the messages and his/her selective exposure, which created cognitive dissonance or consonance in the communications process. In the 1970s, the “gatekeeping” and “agenda-setting” functions of the press were explored as was the “need for orientation” theory. The latter states that people must relate to their environments through issues; media are used to satisfy personal needs, thus influencing ← 252 | 253 → individual agenda setting (Freedman and Sears, 1965). Along the way, the role of personal interactions among opinion influencers or news elites and the two-step flow of communications also came into the literature.

The gatekeeping and agenda-setting functions of the media are most relevant to the subject of terrorist news. Knowledge and information, the media’s tools, are used to ensure system maintenance through feedback and distribution control. In complex pluralistic and interdependent societies, the print and broadcast journalists serve as arbiters of conflict management. Journalists also perform watchdog or surveillance functions. These functions allow social stress or subsystem dysfunctions to be resolved or handled without resort to civil strife and resultant social chaos. News broadcasts and stories serve to keep the flow of information moving so that tension and ultimate release (resolution) follow the very crisis that the media and political spokespersons jointly created. The media provide discrete knowledge of an issue or event rather than in-depth knowledge about a controversy or public policy. Media often avoid the latter, since those dangerous topics may require delving into causes and proposed solutions, both of which may be extremely divisive. Instead, the media selectively combine sights, sounds, images, and symbols into a meta-reality. These not only depict reality, but actually create, recreate, replace, or displace it. This media function is well documented in postmodern semiotic, humanistic, and cultural studies of the news genre (Graber, 1980, pp. 117-154; Agee, et al, 1982, pp. 17-33, Robinson, 1984, pp. 199-221).

Of course, violent bombings, kidnappings, or robberies actually involve very few perpetrators and relatively few victims. Any small war or state military action, such as the Grenada invasion or “police action” in Libya (which some label “state terrorism”), are far more elaborate in both the number of killers and killed, as are the weekly totals of gun-related deaths or highway mayhem on American roads. So the relative scale of militant violence or the extent of public risk of physical injury is relatively small. In fact, the number of actual terrorist incidents was only 127 out of 258 reports in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times in the 1980-1985 period; that is, an average of about 25 per year (Picard and Adams, March 1988, p. 1). In the United States, a person is more likely to die as a victim of an asthma attack than as a victim of a terrorist attack.

If we examine the statistics from a conflicting perspective, we see the number of international terrorist incidents reported in 1985 was 812 (a 36% increase over 1984), with 177 involving US targets. Domestically, there were only seven actual incidents that same year (with 23 thwarted attempts, according to FBI reports). Of course, certain highly visible incidents caught media and the public attention. Among these were the TWA 847, Achille Lauro, and Rome and Vienna airport assaults in which American nationals were also victimized (Picard and Adams, March 1988). Despite relatively small numbers, what we remember is the residue of psychological threats, diminution of national pride, and challenges to sacred morals, precious symbols, and hallowed myths. These have longer lasting and more ← 253 | 254 → qualitative significance to the citizenry and its leaders. This is why the most proficient terrorists seek to strike at the heart of the state and the core of the establishment; they aim to destroy those elements that represent the highest symbolic and media values: American tourists, flagship carriers, embassies, or military personnel.

As with studies of crime, mugging, alcoholism, and other social ills, statistics are used to buttress the rationality of this phenomenon, which, as a UMI publication and Yonah Alexander say, “affects every person in the global community and inspires fear in many” (UMI Research Collections Information Service, 1989). Ambassador at Large for Counter-Terrorism L. Paul Bremer’s (March 1987, pp. 1-4) official US definition of terrorism allows his assertion that there were 600 such incidents in 1984; 780 in 1985; 800 in 1986; and 2000 so-called casualties in 1987. Other statistics from the RAND Corporation in 1987 claim that anti-US terrorism peaked in 1977 with 99 cases. In 194, there were 68 cases; in 1985, 27; and in 1986, only 11. In the latter year, the US share was only 3% of the 400 deaths attributable to international terrorism as a whole (Dobkin, November 1989, p. 17).

By defining terrorism, any administration can control and own the problem itself, particularly if the media repeat the unquestioned assertions and afford them legitimacy as larger-than-life social drama with a huge public audience. Although terrorism is more dramatic than everyday crime news, both serve a moral, socially solidifying, and ideological function. In addition to accepting administration labels, the media help to brand terrorism as a foreign, strange, and evil occurrence – an abnormality that has no social context and that is irrational by Western standards. As Said (1988, pp. 149-158) says, the “wall-to-wall nonsense about terrorism can inflict grave damage . . . because it consolidates the immense, unrestrained, pseudo-patriotic narcissism we are nourishing.” This obsession with terrorism has not only led to irresponsible acts, but, as Secretary of State George Shultz said in 1985, has also bordered on considering a declaration of war against Libya. The deliberately concocted scenarios of mortal danger and threat to America’s vital national interests are responsible for popular approval of warlike acts and repressive measures such as the air raid on Libya in 1986. The buildup of tension after the administration’s erroneous attribution to Libya of responsibility for the Berlin disco bombing inevitably led to the bombing of Tripoli.

With the international state system no longer under the hegemonic control of either Western or Eastern powers, counterterrorism efforts are directed at restoring international principles of legitimacy and order. The popular panic engendered by media and administration rhetoric is used not only to justify a deadly answering force, but also to quash forever any hope of ascertaining if a legitimate basis for the terrorist grievance exists (Bruck, Winter 1989). The misuse of the terrorist threat also allows an administration based on “peace through strength” and a $3 trillion military buildup to rationalize the use of weaponry so that Americans can once ← 254 | 255 → again “stand tall” regardless of its effect on the longer range issues of world order and a lasting peace. As Der Derian says of the “national security culture” in the United States:

Much of what we do know of terrorism displays a superficiality of reasoning and a corruption of language which effects truths about terrorism without any sense of how these truths are produced by and help to sustain official discourses of international relations (Der Derian, 1989, p. 234).

Obviously, there is more at stake here than normally meets the popular or journalistic eye (Palmerton, 1988; Dobkin, November 1989; Bruck, Winter 1989). Bruck’s review of critical theory, ideological closure, and hegemonic analysis of the communications media (e.g., Todd Gitlin, 1980, pp. 25-26, 284) indicates that there may be hope for a revised journalistic perspective on terrorism reporting and coverage, as has happened in recent years with the peace movement. As he said:

Against a depiction of the media as a relatively seamlessly reproducing apparatus consistently serving the entrenched powers, I want to argue that the media show discursive openings, inconsistencies, and contradictions. They can provide the basis for developing strategic politics by alternative groups and movements (Bruck, Winter 1989, p. 113).

Although his study is based on a Canadian daily newspaper’s coverage of peace, disarmament and security issues, Bruck’s discussion of media systems is equally applicable to the United States. Consequently, there is some room for optimism about breaking down the terrorist act/media response/government definition/popular panic nexus in such violent international dramatic events.

The interactions between mass media and violent terrorism are akin to host (media) and parasite (violent terrorism). This symbiotic relationship requires the media to use violence to sell magazines or newspapers and gain viewers and listeners. They seek to increase their readership and audience share to sell billions of dollars of advertising. This increases everyone’s profitability, with the possible exception of the terrorists. In Eastern or Western state-controlled mass media societies (whose numbers in the West decrease daily), publicly owned media regularly give high visibility to terrorist violence. Why? Because the news canon requires them to report all major events to ensure their continued legitimacy and credibility as a truthful or free press. With numerous and increasing external sources of news via satellite and radio, any international news event spreads like wildfire through technological societies. This occurs even without benefit of normal media contexts despite the state’s mechanisms for communications control. Even the Eastern socialist press covered terrorist events in order to maintain credibility as to benefit from invidious comparisons between the “wild West” and the “orderly East,” where peace and quiet reign supreme. ← 255 | 256 →

This situation highlights the need to examine a series of interrelationships between the media and terrorism. Among others, two of the most interesting questions are:

 Do the media actually help or hinder terrorism despite their societal role as cheerleader in support of basic antiviolent norms? (This is the contagion or epidemic theory regarding the spread of the terrorist virus or infection.)

 Do media/publicity-starved terrorist groups not only recognize this media dependence on violence, but also structure their campaigns to insure maximum media coverage and involvement for their own purposes?

In the process of answering these two queries, both terrorism’s and media’s roles, techniques, and expectations will be explained and the media/terrorist interactive system will be described. A case study of the Italian Red Brigade’s (Brigate Rosse or BR) 1978 kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro is presented for illustrative purposes. Some conclusions and suggestions for changing the cycle of violence system are also offered for consideration in the context of future public/media policymaking.

Common Roles, Expectations, Techniques: Mass Media and Terrorism

A description of the unique and common roles of mass media and terrorism as international phenomena may help to show that these seemingly disparate transnational entities have certain mutually reinforcing qualities. Each is, therefore, the captive or the victim, the friend or the foe, of the other. However, role reversals are not unusual during the course of terrorist incidents.

International Terrorism Defined and Described

The terrorist is considered the “ultimate criminal.” With the sudden demise of post-Gorbachev communism as the main enemy, terrorism has become “public enemy number one” in American public discourse (Said, 1988, p. 149). Both the media and the political establishment share responsibility for so framing and defining in domestic terms this mainly international problem. Therefore, it has high salience value in the public’s mind. The power to name, label, and define terrorism is especially relevant to this discussion since terrorism is so distant and beyond the average person’s experience. It is a case (as in much international discourse) where the media wield exceptional power over popular conceptions of reality. The media usually accept the official or institutionalized definitions of abstract, foreign, or new events. This is especially true when there is an established party line in the government regarding abstruse or unfamiliar events. ← 256 | 257 →

Although there was some difference in the Reagan administration’s earlier definitions of terrorism, a clear party line emerged by 1984. In 1983, a US Army journal defined the international targets of terrorism as a case where

The calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain goals political, religious, or ideological in nature . . . done through intimidation, coercion, and involving fear . . . it involves a criminal act that is often symbolic in nature and intended to influence an audience beyond the immediate victim (Dobkin, November 1989, p. 15).

The next year, a State Department definition called it “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine state agents (Dobkin, November 1989, p. 15). The US Ambassador at Large for Counter-Terrorism, L. Paul Bremer (March 1987, p. 1), added to the official definition in 1987, when he said, “Terrorism’s most significant characteristic is that it despises and seeks to destroy the fundamentals of Western democracy – respect for individual life and the rule of law.” That same year, John Whitehead, a deputy secretary of state, said that terrorism is the new enemy for it is no longer “the random, senseless act of a few crazed individuals” but is now “a new pattern of low-technology and an inexpensive warfare” and “a strategy and a tool of those who reject the norms and values of civilized people everywhere” (Dobkin, November 1989, p. 16). Yonah Alexander (an academic spokesman close to the Reagan and Bush administrations’ vies) is directing a University of Michigan (UMI) international resource file on terrorism and has edited this journal for the last decade. The UMI view on modern terrorism is summed up in the following way:

Modern-day terrorism is a challenge to every society. It is an issue which somehow affects every person in the global community and inspires fear in many. Through the increased use of victimization, psychological warfare and munitions technology, terrorists have ushered in a New Age Terrorism sometimes termed “Low Intensity Conflict” – a new form of warfare in which soldiers are indistinguishable from civilians. Yet, some say “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter.” The terrorist may be viewed as a criminal by some and heroic by others. Politics, propaganda and patriotism cloud the issue, and the public remains confused or overwhelmed. Experts debate on the most effective means to eliminate the ever-present danger of terrorist incidents. It is a controversial subject – one not yet fully understood – and the questions and concerns surrounding the topic have fueled an enormous amount of documentation and scholarly research in the past twenty-five years (UMI, 1989, p. 2).

Whole nations can be held hostage. A small band of unified and dedicated, seemingly irrational, instantly important, and ultimately threatening men and women (usually young) may, supposedly, do violence to us all. Terrorists, though relatively impotent, recognize these fears. Consequently, they plan and control the calculated use of violence, mayhem, and death. Their aim is to provoke and inspire extreme fear and dread among individuals, groups, nations, and international agencies and institutions. ← 257 | 258 →

During the 1980s, we had the dubious advantage of more than 100 opperative definitions of terrorism. One expert on the subject, Martha Crenshaw (1987, pp. 48), defines terrorism as “a strategy any political actor can use.” She also says that it requires few resources (i.e., it is cheap); it involves “violent coercion” in order “to intimidate an opponent”; and “it is intended to compel a change in an enemy’s behavior by affecting his will, not to destroy the enemy physically” (Crenshaw, 1987). Terrorism also relies on suspense and “psychological reactions of shock, outrage, and sometimes, enthusiasm” (Crenshaw, 1987). Moreover, terrorism usually occurs in times of peace rather than war. Noncombatants are the usual objects; the targets or victims have symbolic value, being representatives of a class, nation, or a cause. Crenshaw concludes: “Terrorism is fundamentally a strategy of demoralization, directed against the entire population of a nation rather than its armed forces, as would be the case in traditional warfare” (Crenshaw, 1987).

In her writings, Crenshaw tries, as she says, to avoid a “normative judgment” about terrorism. However, Walter Laqueur (not known for the neutrality of his views on the subject) says that “there is no such thing as pure, unalloyed, unchanging terrorism, but there are many forms of terrorism. In the circumstances, a case may be made for broader and, of necessity, vaguer definitions” (Laqueur, 1987, p. 145). More typical of such definitions was that of the US Task Force on Disorders and Terrorism (1976), which defined terrorism as “violent criminal behavior designed primarily to generate fear in the community . . . for political purposes” (U.S. Department of Justice, 1976). Other definitions of terrorism describe individual hijackings of commercial transport vehicles or state terrorism, which involves training and deploying assassins and paramilitary guerrilla bands to invade another land. In terms of objectives, terrorists may be grouped into those seeking financial reward (criminals), those seeking personal glory and fame (crazies), and those using violence for political goals (crusaders) (Hacker, 1976).

Terrorist groups may also be categorized across the political spectrum as extremists of the right (e.g., neo-Fascist, KKK, racist); leftist (e.g., anarchist, Maoists); national liberation (e.g., IRA, PLO); or religious evangelists (e.g., Hanafi Muslims and Islamic Jihad). Terrorists themselves advertise their political goals, preferring to be called freedom fighters, revolutionaries, liberators, soldiers or nationalists. These defensive terms are meant to combat the pejorative abuse uniformly heaped upon them in most mass media. Occasionally, however, extremist or marginal newspapers (like certain government-controlled media) have used similar favorable terms to describe those militant bands with whose violent motives or politics they agree. Simply put, terrorism may be red, brown, or black; uniformed or dressed in ethnic regalia; or otherwise decked out to communicate and symbolize their “just” cause against a powerful and evil enemy, the state.

In more technologically primitive days, terrorists frequently demanded media interviews, press releases, printing of demands, statements, or photographs, and the like. More recently, however, terrorist (or quasi-terrorist) groups have produced ← 258 | 259 → videotaped reports on the condition of hostages, used hostages as spokespersons, spoken directly to television audiences, or even compiled a documentary record for publication of their exploits (as the Animal Liberation Front did in 1985 after a California laboratory break-in). Their increasing use of new video technology is evidence of the parallel development between terrorism and the media. As Laqueur says, “the media are the terrorists’ best friends” (Laqueur, March 1976). He also maintains that “the terrorists’ act by itself is nothing; publicity is all.” So close is this connection that one Associated Press correspondent recently claimed that terrorists are so media-wise that they now play journalists “like a violin” (Livingstone, 1987, p. 220). Of course, the most severe critics of media’s role in publicizing terrorist exploits would like to enroll media as a front-line soldier in fighting back or winning the war against terrorism, labeled a “hydra of carnage,” in “low-intensity operations.” Also of note is the use of this military jargon for a small war (Livingstone and Arnold, 1987; Ra’anan, et al., 1986).

Picard and Adams (March 1988) point out that both media and actual witnesses to acts of political violence use more neutral nominal language (such as shooting and attacker) to delineate events, whereas government officials use more highly charged, descriptive words (such as criminals, terrorists, and murderers). The latter are more judgmental, inflammatory, and sensationalistic. In these stories, the primary media characterizations were of their own making. Media seldom quoted primary sources. This occurred only 6% of the time in relevant Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post stories from 1980 to 1985.

Complaining that US and Soviet journalists also have no real understanding of the other’s conceptions of either freedom or of terrorism, Cooper further defines the problem in this way:

The sum total of people categorized as terrorists do not fit a pat, unchanging stereotype. In-depth interviews with those depicted as terrorists in many countries do not reveal a uniform pattern of deranged, hostile, illiterate, macho, psychotic madmen. Although such people exist, much, if not all, of our monolithic image of terrorists is presented to us, not by people who call themselves terrorists, but by mass media (Cooper, July 1988, p. 5).

Since few, if any, of us have seen, spoken to, or met a terrorist (or are likely to), we are at some disadvantage. The same unfamiliarity applies when we appraise the worth of foreign news personalities such as Arafat and Qaddafi. Much the same ignorance also prevails among those strangers who label Americans as “state terrorists.” Actually, we may each share the undesirable attributes we assign to one another: a low estimation of human life; lack of mutual respect; projection of power orientations; demonstrated rigidity; and espousal of a self-serving ideology.

Although the Nixon administration had its domestic enemies list, a high priority of the Reagan administration was the production of an international enemies list. Those so listed at various times included the USSR (branded the “focus of evil” or the “evil empire”) or the so-called outlaw Qaddafi regime in ← 259 | 260 → Libya whose leader is regularly called a madman. Increasingly, the public idiom leads the citizenry to automatically equate many of these enemies with terrorism so that the words enemy and terrorist have virtually become so synonymous and interchangeable that the resultant need to declare war on international terrorism becomes self-evident. In 1989, much the same sequence of events led to a renewed war on drugs when “narcoterrorists” in Colombia were declared US public enemies, fully deserving the complete attention of the president, his “drug czar,” William Bennett, the Department of State, and the US military, if need be.

In the drug war, all alternatives are considered save legalization and public control of drugs – considered an immoral choice. Alcohol regulation had a similar history in that it has been banned and legalized, taxed and allowed duty free, plus used medicinally and declared the nation’s most dangerous drug. In popular and official perception, alcohol abuse has variously been deemed immoral, showing a lack of willpower, illegal, a disease, and now (by the Veterans Administration and the federal courts) a self-inflicted, preventable illness, which does not deserve veteran’s health benefits. These various public and social definitions of disease (as with AIDS) and definitions of and responses to terrorism are critical in the identification and solution of a public problem.

Noam Chomsky’s radical critique of “the culture of terrorism” assumes American responsibility for what it gets back internationally because of what he calls “the fifth freedom” that is, America’s “freedom to rob, to exploit, and to dominate, to undertake any course of action to ensure that existing privilege is protected and advanced” (Chomsky, 1986 and 1988). Chomsky documents America’s role in Latin-American, African, and Asian repression and provides evidence of US state terrorism and clandestine terrorism activities throughout the world now and in the recent past. He also assails the Reagan administration’s conservative “right turn” politics and decries that administration’s establishment of thought-control programs and agencies, such as Operation Truth and the Office of Public Diplomacy. These activities are “wholesale terrorism” in Chomsky’s vernacular, whereas what passes for terrorism on the evening news is merely “retail terrorism” by individuals and groups. In sum, Chomsky’s view of the media-supported official terrorist line is summed up in his quotation from Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in his Journal over a century ago:

There is no need of a law to check the license of the press. It is law enough, and more than enough, to itself. Virtually, the community have come together and agreed what things shall be uttered, have agreed on a platform and to excommunicate him who departs from it, and not one in a thousand dares utter anything else (Chomsky, 1986, p. 37).

Worse yet is Chomsky’s fear that the people will not lack courage to express themselves, but rather that they will not have the capacity to think since they are products of the “engineers of democratic consent.” ← 260 | 261 →

America’s violent films, political assassinations, racial conflicts, violent strikes, use and threat of military force and massive retaliation, drug wars among urban guerrillas, and hundreds of thousands of annual highway injuries and deaths seem to validate the description of America as a violent society. By comparison, Arafat, the George Washington/Charles DeGaulle of the PLO, claims to be just a freedom fighter, resisting the appellation state terrorist of the Israelis and their American allies. But all of this PLO “terrorism,” American “Ramboism,” Qaddafi “irrationality,” and like creations are products of the mass media, bearing only some, if little, resemblance to reality.

Terrorist groups are frequently foreign or exotic, unknown or inexplicable, or religious based; they also produce disinformation and thrive on military secrecy, group bonds, or a blood pact. When mass media approach such groups, they are bound to fail in their comprehension, story telling, or reporting since their perceptions are seldom realistic, often adversarial, and always distorted. They are also at times self-serving, biased, or ethnocentric, and they are frequently rigid, ideological, purposeful, and negative. While terrorism is at best unpleasant, it deserves the benefit of a realistic treatment. By denying it such treatment, we not only are dishonest to ourselves, but we also infuriate and heighten the animosity of these supposed adversaries both today and tomorrow (Cooper, July 1988, p. 5).

Media Defined and Described

Large, syndicated, multinational corporations and governments have dominant control over newspapers and television throughout the world. Ownership and control are increasingly centralized. The major purpose of the media is not, as the New York Times masthead claims, to publish “all the news that’s fit to print,” but rather just that news it takes to achieve high readership (or ratings in the case of radio and television). Consequently, a newspaper today (though less so in Europe) is merely a bundle of advertisements wrapped in a tissue of news, features, and photographs. Since the corporate spirit runs high in Western capitalist economies, even Andy Warhol said, “Good business is good art.” So the twin arts of journalism and terrorism have negotiated a mutually beneficial contract: One is rewarded with dollars and the other with instant fame and publicity.

As on television (the pictorial headline news), what sells the particular communications medium is the bizarre, the investigative report, the exposé, the heinous crime, the sexy, or the spectacular. The average viewer or reader spends very little time using the educational or informational components of the mass media. For example, readers spend an average of 16 minutes with a US newspaper, concentrating mainly on sports, features, advertising, and “soft” news. By contrast, opinion leaders spend more time with a variety of media and are better informed. However, the average viewer prefers entertainment to education and the “cool” television to the “hot” printed message. ABC’s Sander Vanocur discounts the ← 261 | 262 → “enlightenment or education business” functions of mass media as well as “the people’s right-to-know” argument for a free press. He says that media:

. . . are in a business, the business of information. Whatever anyone else may claim for us, that is what we are supposed to do – pass on information, as best we can, as quickly as we can (Ra’anan, et al., 1986, p. 259).

In maintaining this position, Vanocur must necessarily forget the longstanding US custom and tradition (codified in the Federal Communications Act of 1934), which links an informed and educated public to the existence of a free government. Without this social objective, there is no need for the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free and unfettered press. He must also necessarily ignore the Federal Communications Act, FCC regulations, and federal law, which have regulated radio, cable, and television broadcasts in the public interest for the last 50 years. For most of this time, laws and regulations required documentary evidence of public-service broadcasting for approval of a station’s license renewal application. Of course, these public-service standards were minimal, shabby, and perfunctorily enforced.

A free and responsible press in the US precludes prior restraint, but public responsibility under law also makes the media subject to prosecution under laws governing libel and slander. By 1989, television’s equal time doctrine (under congressional mandate) alone survived the onslaught of the Reagan “deregulation revolution.” This policy abolished restrictions, limits, or requirements for fairness, children’s news, and public affairs programming, programming logs, and advertising time. That was a decided swing away from previous FCC rules, dating from the 1960s. However, the FCC pendulum may still swing the other way. Congress may also involve itself more directly in legislative oversight of communications. The free market may yet abuse the public interest too severely by adhering to the communications-as-business philosophy, the result of a privatization obsession led from the Reagan and Bush White Houses.

Instead of defining the media as information or news agencies, perhaps it is useful and more accurate to accept some of Vanocur’s argument. We may agree that the media (particularly radio and television) are mainly in the profitable entertainment business – sexual and violent entertainment at that. Mass media operate on providing minimum context, supplying broad and quick coverage, and giving the reader or viewer what he or she wants. At best, the context for news is the standard journalistic litany of answering the who, what, when, where, how, and occasionally, why questions learned in Journalism 101 classes. Seldom do the media provide their readers or viewers with the background, context, or parallel information needed to follow a story over time or to understand a topic in depth. It is a small wonder that readers and views cannot internalize, assimilate, and conceptualize a story into their highly valuative, cognitive maps and perceptual frames of reference. The texts of news stories and television scripts are often more ← 262 | 263 → “writerly” than “readerly.” In the absence of regular coverage, with context, for an important continuing story or recurrent social theme (such as work hazards, defense, or violence toward others), the reader cannot realistically understand the news. When Bhopal, defense corruption, or the latest terrorist story catapult on the screen or front page week after week, they remain unique, inexplicable, strange, and forever inassimilable and meaningless.

Certain basic requirements are necessary for the news genre’s existence. That is, news must be timely (critical, crisis, recent); unique (new, fresh); entertaining (drama, pathos); adventurous (dangerous, a horse race, unfolding, risky, a life-or-death battle); and it must relate to the reality of the viewer (human identification, everyday life, innocent victims) (Alexander and Finger, 1977). To this list can be added two other news criteria: authenticity (validity) and credibility (trust), features which both news and terrorist acts share in kind. The predominant journalistic values require news to be about unexpected, sensational, and conflictual events. Violent groups are more than willing to supply an ample measure of each ingredient required to make their story newsworthy.

As a case in point of media crisis coverage of violent domestic disturbances, Graber (1989, p. 306) describes the clash over “self-preservation” issues between the media and government. The media’s “responsibility to serve public needs” is in direct conflict with the government’s desire “to control, direct, and even manipulate the flow of news for public purposes.” Graber finds that crisis coverage typically runs through three stages. First, when background information on the crisis is announced, basic details fo who, what, when, where and how are revealed and a kind of ordered panic or chaos prevails while news (frequently distorted and inaccurate) is spread throughout a “wired” society. At this stage, media messages also tend to be calming and convey the message: “Don’t worry. Everything’s okay.” Stage two finds the media trying to provide context for the crisis and to supply rational and coherent explanations for the event. The final interpretive stage takes a coping posture and a longer range view. Its goals are tension relief, morale building, panic prevention, and reinforcing the viewpoint of “everything’s under control” in this unique situation.

Throughout these stages, the media depend on government sources for their information and practice self-censorship to allay fears and to prevent panic. The picture portrayed of competent government officials (“doing something”) is reassuring and calming to the media’s viewer, listeners, or readers. As a crisis matures, however, the media may develop a feeding frenzy in their lust for news. For example, crisis coverage of the Detroit riots in 1967, the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, the Tylenol poisonings in 1982, the TWA hijacking in 1985, and the stock market crash in 1987 all produced unexpected and unanticipated results.

Reportage on the Detroit riots produced a multiplier effect by encouraging new rioters; similarly, a rash of “copycat” crimes followed the 1982 cyanide deaths. The stock market panic in 1987 was also inflamed when media pointed out its parallel ← 263 | 264 → with 1929. The deployment of an antiterrorist strike force against the TWA hijackers was curtailed after widespread media reports eliminated the vital element of surprise (Graber, 1989, pp. 316-317).

Despite preexistent and widespread media plans for crisis coverage of natural disasters and civil disorders, the complacency engendered from years of rosy reports on nuclear power plant safety took its toll in 1979. Previous problems at Three Mile Island had been so well hidden, minimized, or ignored that a 3-day delay resulted before a central communications center was established there. This center essentially performed a centralized media censorship and control function for official and corporate press releases. It kept the lid on the crisis through “balanced” new releases. However, other unedited reports from the scene were contradictory, exaggerated, speculative, and frightening to area residents (Graber, 1989, pp. 312, 314, 318).

Crisis coverage planning, although widespread, is probably more successful in planning a scenario for covering the event post hoc than it is in either preventing or predicting the crisis. Media personnel regularly assume that widespread panic and contagion will result if the extent of rioting or civil disorder is fully and accurately reported. While relevant social science data do not support this view, media decisionmakers believe violence will beget violence. Therefore, they act accordingly. For example, in the 1967 Winston-Salem riots, the Winston-Salem Journal had a roughly prearranged game plan for reporting on racial violence and cooperation with the police and local officials in order to calm racial tensions and to curb violence (Paletz and Entman, 1981, pp. 114-117). The Journal’s reporting guidelines were designed to limit the news, convey tranquility, blame “thugs” and “hoodlums” for the riots, reduce exaggeration, avoid basic grievances, ignore rumors, and underplay the extent of violence. The guiding maxim was, “when in doubt, leave out.” As the story developed over four days, there were 200 arrests, 100 injuries, extensive property damage, but no deaths. On the first night of rioting, a news blackout was imposed. Thereafter, the story was reported almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the police and local officials, and concentrated on portrayals of blacks who supported the local elite’s game plan.

The Journal’s white establishment, reporters, and editors covered events as they would any important crime story where violence threatened legitimate authority. No coverage of minority grievances, underlying social problems, or statements from the black leadership or citizenry was provided to readers. In this way, not only were black demands (e.g., that police brutality against one of their number be investigated and handled) crushed but also:

The coverage probably reduced the political power of already inefficacious poor people. Simultaneously, it may have enhanced the prestige of the police department – at least among whites (Paletz and Entman, 1981 p. 117). ← 264 | 265 →

Graber’s viewpoint on the Winston-Salem case is that the official/police/National Guard/media concurrence could be credited with reducing the level of violence and its harmful effects:

In the short run this helped keep the situation under control, but the long-run effects of carefully limited coverage are more troubling. In terrorist incidents or prison riots, failure to air the grievances of terrorists and prison inmates deprives them of a public forum for voicing their grievances. Their bottled up anger may lead to more violent explosions. Needed reforms may be aborted (Graber, 1989, p. 322).

Graber also discusses the contrary positions of those who would prefer to allow the violent confrontation or reaction and complete media coverage to run their course versus those who would mute, censor, and black out overly violent incidents. The former claim that shocking the public conscience is a likely outcome of extensive and accurate reporting, whereas the latter maintain that more restrained coverage will reduce conflict and hatred while allowing reasoned reform after the fact. Although the media and public leadership have usually chosen the news suppression option, Graber observes:

The true test of genuine freedom does not come in times of calm. It comes in times of crisis when the costs of freedom may be dear, tempting government and media alike to impose silence. If a free press is a paramount value, the die must be cast in favor of unrestrained crisis coverage, moderated only by the sense of responsibility of individual journalists (Graber, 1989, p. 322).

Media and Terrorism: Symbiotic Relationships

Terrorism is different, dramatic, and potentially violent. It frequently develops over a period of time, occurs in exotic locations, offers a clear confrontation, involves bizarre characters, and is politically noteworthy. Finally, it is of concern to the public (Hoge, 1982, p. 91).

Since terrorism so clearly fills the bill as a major news event, media fiercely compete for coverage, scoops, and live footage or photographs that can be labeled “exclusives.” This drive to win, as Jody Powell says, is a direct product of the competition “for ratings and circulation between newspapers and networks and for personal advancement within a given news organization” (Livingstone, 1987, p. 219). Media coverage of the TWA flight 847 hijacking in June 1985 effectively destroyed certain flimsy, self-imposed media guidelines established for such coverage. Some major print and broadcast agencies developed these standards for coverage as a result of the 1985 Hanafi Muslim’s siege staged in the nation’s capital. Back then, a media orgy saturated the television screens with live stories and terrorist interviews from the scene. Reporters and radio hosts tied up telephone lines, and the lives of undetected building occupants were endangered they nearly missed an opportunity to escape. ← 265 | 266 →

Even while recognizing the importance of their roles as virtual abettors of such violence and terrorist’s objectives, many reporters later opposed all guidelines for covering terrorism. Their position was anticensorship, pro-free speech and press, anti-prior restraint, and advocacy of a general “right to know.” During the TWA hijacking, the media actually broadcast events live. They interacted with the terrorists, experts, victims and their relatives, and the pilot, thus becoming an integral part in expanding the problem. Perhaps it was the earlier Iran hostage debacle which set the standard. The latter was so exhaustively and regularly covered (with, for example, a daily countdown of the number of days of hostage captivity) that in a 1981 Washington Journalism Review article, David Altheide concluded that “more media attention was given to the hostages in Iran than any single event in history, including the Vietnam War” (Livingstone, 1987, p. 223).

The history of media coverage of terrorism has also provided the validity of Daniel Schorr’s observation that “many people have found that the royal road to identity is to do something violent” (Anzovin, 1986, p. 101). For example, the Palestinian terrorists who attacked the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972 instantly found themselves in the living rooms of over 800 million people. By creating a climate of fear in an attack on (or even killing of) unknown victims, the relatively and comparatively powerless terrorists hope to compel far more powerful state or media officials to comply with their wishes. Since terrorists are so much weaker than the establishment they are challenging, they must use guerilla hit-and-run tactics to create the psychological state of mind needed to ensure public and official compliance with, or acceptance of, certain aggressive goals.

The motor of the BR: “Strike one to educate one hundred” is worth noting here as is its similarity to Lenin’s revolutionary slogan: “Kill one, frighten a hundred.” After the BR struck violently, the media ended up educating the public, while the BR served as a principal accomplice in the media war which followed. Indeed, the BR had earlier targeted the media and prominent journalists as potential victims in its war against the multinationals and the “imperialist state.” By 1977, journalists, editors, and members of the Italian press had been branded “servants of the imperialist apparatus of repression.” After several journalists were brutally “kneecapped” or shot dead in quick succession, the popular and press reaction to these violent incidents was equivalent to that following an invasion from outer space.

The BR later switched its attention to “armed propaganda” for political recognition and attacks “at the heart of the state” to prove to all that revolution was “within . . . reach.” Media were transformed from objects of attack to useful instruments of war. The BR deliberately focused in attacks on “the heart of the state” and enlisted the media as its publicists in the kidnapping of Christian Democrat Party President Aldo Moro in 1978. (Moro previously had been prime minister and foreign minister of Italy for six year.) After Moro’s assassination (in which the government actually exploited the media, as did the terrorists and everyone ← 266 | 267 → involved, save Moro himself), the BR kidnapping of a prominent judge (Giovanni D’Urso) in 1980 also allowed them to use media for their purposes before releasing their prisoner. A year later, however, the BR shot a hostage after their demand for media time was rejected. But the kneecappings of journalists and media brutality of the 1970s were not reinstituted in the 1980s. Instead, the BR created its own media research and coordination group for public relations, which they called their “psychological front.”

As Daniel Schorr observes, television has a “love affair with drama and a love affair with violence” (Anzovin, 1986, p. 101). Ted Koppel, ABC’s Nightline host, is of a like mind:

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 (Anzovin, 1986, p. 97).

Mass media’s coverage of the news is mainly focused on politicians, corporate leaders, criminals, athletes, and other public and entertainment figures who have “star quality.” Terrorist leaders also recognize the importance of mass media just as New Left advocate Jerry Rubin did. He rebuked his revolutionary brothers for being “too puritanical” in mass media use, perhaps because “Karl Marx never watched television.” “You can’t be a revolutionary today without a television set,” he wrote, “It’s as important as a gun” (Rubin, 1970, p. 108).

And use the media they do. Terrorists use dozens of sophisticated media techniques, such as direct public communication of their grievances, demands, and requirements for compliance. They also seek to form public opinion by disinformation, “confessions” from hostages, criticisms of the government, direct broadcasts over open network channels, and appeals for help. These groups often directly attack the media by using violence against journalists or by using journalists as negotiators. They also bomb or occupy broadcast facilities. Through the media, they can also advertise their cause, incurring favorable attention through releasing hostages, thus seeking Robin Hood status. Such groups also use the media as watchdogs against police perfidy to learn about hostage identities, possible police reprisals, and current public opinion; to communicate with allies; and to identify targets or enemies to be dealt with in the future (Schmid and de Graaf, 1982, pp. 53-54).

Even a spokesman for the PLO recognized the importance of media in its quest for United Nations observer status and legitimacy saying: “the first hijackings aroused the consciousness of the world and awakened the media and world opinion much more – and more efficiently – than 20 years of pleading at the United Nations” (Hickey, 1976, p. 10). As Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton recognized in 1948, the media also provide a “status-conferral” function (i.e., by singling out terrorism for the mass audience, these behaviors and opinions are seen as ← 267 | 268 → significant enough to deserve public notice) for terrorists (Lazarsfeld and Merton, 1971, pp. 554-578). Moreover, media coverage not only provides free publicity for the terrorists, but also may establish them as role models for others.

There also may be a spiraling cycle of violence (i.e., and interactive effect between the quantity of media coverage and the scale of terrorist violence). However, which factor (media or violent incident) causes this or what else causes both is often unclear. Media coverage affects the public and combative groups alike. Regardless of their motives, as terrorists upscale their violence, they are reinforced and rewarded with more media coverage. In turn, as media coverage increases, terrorists are encouraged to top their last execution, threat, or demand (Weimann, 1983; Tan, 1987, p. 151). This view of terrorism as an epidemic that news media spread (though believed by the public, press, and some experts) is not supported in the social science literature as other than a contributing cause. Some of the associated allegations which remain unsubstantiated include beliefs that new groups are formed, new actions are incited, public support is generated, the level of violence is escalated, and media control is forfeited to the terrorists.

There is little proof that the press is so powerful as either potential censors or terrorist groups may imagine. Nevertheless, in 1985, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called for press controls which would deny terrorists and hijackers of the “oxygen of publicity” needed to fuel the resultant flames of their violence. Edwin Diamond of New York University’s News Study Group claimed in a TV Guide article that once the television put a human face on the TWA flight 847 passengers and crew and charged the incident with “everyday emotions,” then “all military options were dead” (TV Guide, July 31, 1976). CBS’s Lesley Stahl said of the press, “We are an instrument for the hostages. We force the administration to put their lives above policy” (Davies, October 1985, p. 4). Consequently, these events become “institutionalized crises” which crowd out all other news (Picard, July 1988, p. 1). And Michael J. Davies, former editor and publisher of the Hartford Courant, typified news personnel’s attitudes when he said:

Publicity is the lifeblood of terrorism. Without it, these abominable acts against the innocent would wither quickly away. Yet few responsible critics would suggest that the media enter into a conspiracy of silence that would ignore all acts of international terrorism (Davies, October 1985, p. 5).

By and large, the media-as-contagion theory depends on transferring the findings of televised violence and aggression to the terrorism arena. However, widespread public perceptions also support this relationship. The popularity of this view among law enforcement officials has helped gain support from some experts (such as M. C. Bassiouni, who said that, except for the “ideologically motivated,” there is a certain “intuitive reasonableness” to the contagion theory. Schmid and de Graaf (1988, p. 2), two Dutch experts, also claimed that media reports helped to ← 268 | 269 → “reduce inhibitions” and offered “models,” “know-how,” and motivations to potential terrorists.

In response, others (such as Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation) reply that “the news media are responsible for terrorism to about the same extent that commercial aviation is responsible for the airline hijackings” (i.e., the media are just “another vulnerability” in a highly vulnerable technological and free society) (Schmid and de Graaf, 1988, p. 31). Other related studies have shed some light on this phenomenon. For example, hierarchy was used in one study by Midlarsky, Crenshaw, and Yoshida (June 1980) as a theory to explain the spread of terrorism “from the least powerful” and “from the weak states to the strong” (i.e., from Latin America to Western Europe). European terrorist groups borrow ideology, rhetoric, and methods from the Third World, as well as techniques of bombing, which transfer quite easily. Through intergroup cooperation, they move across boundaries to new locations that provide a suitable site for the proposed act. The careful planning and specialized technical knowledge that some groups display could not have been learned from television or in newspapers. Diffusion of these ideas is more likely based on interpersonal channels of communications. The media’s role in furthering the awareness aspect of the process (if not in the evaluation, acceptance, and adaptation parts of the same process) may reinforce, if not cause, such diffusion. At any rate, diffusion theory probably offers a better line of research than does the imitative effect of “copycat” violent acts, scenes, and situations.

Since media engage in sensationalism, can interfere with law enforcement, may endanger lives and help spread irrational fears, they have become closely associated with terrorism, though they still have not become its primary cause. Moreover, if terrorism really seeks the media publicity it gets through violence, why should potential terrorists not receive appropriate media coverage for their grievances before they resort to violence? Not only can the media adopt a responsible, reasoned, and measured approach to terrorism, once begun, but they can also regularly provide ample outlets for expressions of relevant public and group concerns, thereby addressing or reducing grievances, while evaluating current controversial public policies. Such a modified response to terrorism would actually require more, although very different, coverage of terrorist violence. This could be done without glamorizing the perpetrators. New media formats could provide useful and valid information, consider consequences of past or hypothetical acts, improve the public’s capacity to deal with large crises, aim to reduce attendant public fears, and increase the public’s understanding. These new formats could provide continual context while they perhaps help to reduce the general level of violence in the society (US Department of Justice, 1976, p. 65; Picard, July 1988, pp. 4-6).

As the terrorist sideshow unfolds, the public is usually mesmerized. Viewers see the black-and-white spectacle of heroes and villains fighting it out, not on the set of Miami Vice, but in a real scene with real guns, bullets, bombs, hostages, and ← 269 | 270 → murders. They are eyewitnesses to a human morality play, with its real winners and losers. In a way, this portrayal even becomes the “theater of the obscene” in that the television screen (reinforced in radio, newspaper, and magazine features) displays a huge international “snuff film,” rivaling execution scenes from World War II and Vietnam documentary footage. These real-life scenarios are left to the viewer to interpret. The media seldom report the social, economic, or political objectives or rationales for these unpaid terrorist “actors” who play starring roles even though they are not members of Actors’ Equity (Paletz, Ayanian, and Fozzard, 1982, p. 166).

Indeed, the media’s message, though antiviolent, may have other appeals to different audiences. Media effects reveal that the public may use their sense of a “just world” for evaluative purposes. Here, even the victims may be held responsible for their own suffering, the terrorists may be absolved of guilt, or the terrorist grievance, redress, or cause against the government may be supported. On this point, Schmid and de Graaf conclude:

Through the way the media present terroristic news, through selection of some facts out of the multitude of potentially relevant facts, through the associations they lay between the terroristic act and the social context, the media can have a profound influence that can create public hysteria, witchhunts, fatalism, and all sorts of other reactions that serve certain political interests – and not only those of the terrorists (Schmid and de Graaf, 1982, p. 98).

Dobkin (1989 and November 1989) recently described the terrorism and media connection as one in which the American government has not only manufactured the problem and dominated both its definition and public importance, and, therefore, its “public ownership” and “responsibility” for the problem, but has also turned the issue into “an instrument of US foreign policy.” In contrast to traditional research, which stresses the interdependence of terrorism and media coverage (“media determinism”), Dobkin emphasizes the power inherent in the national security state not only to engineer popular consent, but also to enlist public support for state-sponsored, official repression. Creating a so-called public crisis cuts off nonmilitary responses. The increasing level of panic and cycle of violence challenge international order. It requires the government to act in a lethal way while either muzzling the media or so dominating the terms of discourse that alternatives to military action (e.g., redress of any legitimate grievances) cannot easily be considered (Dobkin, November 1989, pp. 1, 21).

Similarly, America’s 40-year dependence on deterrence theory and mutual assured destruction (MAD) also has its impact on terrorism, as does classic just war theory’s emphasis on proportionality in meeting an armed attack. Since the public and its leaders believe that deterrence has kept the peace, we are at a loss to explain why a group of terrorist Lilliputians can so effectively cripple the powerful American Gulliver. “Why does deterrence not work?” we ask, never recognizing ← 270 | 271 → that this idea is actually irrelevant to the type of low-intensity, civil-war, or guerilla conflict to which terrorism is similar.

The Brigate Rosse and the Moro Case

Two interesting pieces of research apply to the question of what terrorists get from the media. The first from Italy is a January 10, 1982 opinion poll published in L’Espresso. It indicated that whereas 31% of the Italian public believed that the BR were “dangerous murderers” (negative), over 30% believed that the BR “aims at achieving a just goal by using the wrong means” (positive), and 10% believed that they led the “fight for a better society” (mixed, positive). Certainly, the media’s coverage of terrorism was not expected to produce such results. The violent nature of Italian society, a preference for spectacle politics, longstanding divisive and fractious party activity, higher frequency of regime change, and cops-and-robbers of “Keystone Kops” approaches to resolving domestic violence may be contributing factors to this totally unexpected, unintended, and often hidden aspect of the problem (Payerhin, 1988, p. 14).

Why this happens may in part be explained through an interesting, but small-scale, American research project Gabriel Weimann queried students about their reactions to reading stories about two obscure terrorist groups in the context of total group attitudes and opinions about terrorism. Those reading about these South Moluccan and Croatian groups remained generally negative toward terrorism. However, after exposure to these news articles, between 43% and 51% of the exposed group labeled the problem “important,” in need of greater public knowledge, and a subject of interest to them. The control group’s responses to similar questions was significantly lower (16%, 14%, and 33%, respectively). In other words, there may be an unintended media enhancement of terrorist activity, which is either promoted and/or obscured through media treatment of “terrorism as a spectacle” (Weimann, 1983, p. 43).

What do the newspapers and television get out of this coverage of political extremism? And what does the political regime have to gain from this process? The government clearly dominates most news sources and official reports during most terrorist crises. Moreover, since many European countries (FRG, UK, France, etc.) have terrorist/media guidelines, public officials can limit media excesses that “glorify” terrorists. Since the media take the law-and-order, social control theme to heart during such a crisis, the government gets its favorite tune played in the terrorist saga. During such episodes, the competence of the regime is displayed since the officials orchestrating the state response look powerful, competent, in control, popular, and act in the public interest. Since the government actually wins nearly all these “battles” in the long run (if not today, then tomorrow), these terrorist “Davids” have little chance against the state “Goliaths.”

Palmerton has examined CBS news coverage during the first days of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Although of limited scope, her study concludes that news ← 271 | 272 → coverage reinforced the terrorist strategy by focusing the cause (or blame) for the crisis on US governmental institutions and by suggesting that military action was necessary to reestablish institutional control. Furthermore, she finds that the “rhetorical impact of terrorism” is mainly a function of others’ responses (particularly the media) to terrorist activity. A peincipal problem of regions under terrorist attack is how to maintain both control and one’s status as a victim of terrorism. Indeed, as she says, “the primary threat to governmental institutions is not the lives lost in terrorist acts, but the questioning of governmental institutions” (Palmerton, 1988, p. 105). Lack of realistic and proportional perspective about the terrorist danger or threat in media reports on terrorism helps to construct “a variety of meanings about terrorist events” and “those meanings may well serve the terrorist cause” (Palmerton, 1988, p. 117).

As for the mass media’s gains from terrorism, besides the “hot” news akin to a continuing soap opera/criminal film, what else does the publisher or broadcaster gain? Because the crime beat and reports of violence are part of the daily diet of all media, it is no surprise that terrorism, hijacking, armed siege, political violence, assassinations, and like crimes against the state and people are given widespread publicity. In the case of terrorism, media have a virtual gold mine of news which never dries up or pans out – it has universal appeal and a built-in demand for more coverage up to and beyond the saturation point.

An interesting case in point is the Italian media’s treatment, coverage, and involvement with the state, the hostage, and the BR during the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro and five of his bodyguards in 1978. Since the Moro crisis lasted nearly two months during the spring of 1978, the roles of all prominent forces and actors in this bloody drama had a chance to be played out with the predictability of an ancient Roman coliseum scene. The saga was complete with “Christians” (Moro and his martyred bodyguards), BR “lions,” state “Caesars,” media “tribunes,” and the anxious Italian public, ever eager for more bread, circuses, and carnivals. Wagner-Pacifica (1987) has described the “Moro morality play” as a form of “social drama.”

Ignoring for the moment the complex state, corporate, and party links of the Italian press and broadcast media, Italians’ media usage differs appreciably from that of northern European and other Western European publics. For example, regular newspaper purchases are among the lowest in Europe, particularly in the southern parts of the country. The media in Italy are also strong on debate, rhetoric, conflict, journalistic competition, and sordid exhibitions, particularly reports on widespread crime and violence. There is a minimum level of confirmed sources, careful investigation, analysis of causes, background context, and socially productive reporting. One fact is clear, however: the public’s attention to the media skyrocketed once the Moro case hit the streets and airwaves. For example, all of the five principal newspapers increased sales dramatically (between 56% and 89%) after the Moro kidnapping (Lumley and Schlesinger, 1982, pl. 603). ← 272 | 273 →

In addition to this obvious effect, the symbiotic relationship between the print and nonprint media on the one hand and militant groups on the other warrants further analysis. With respect to the Moro case, what is the evidence that the establishment-oriented Italian press unwittingly contributed to the BR’s success? To what extent was the BR media-wise in handling the Italian communications media in order to present their cause in a favorable light, thus pressuring governmental decision makers?

In the 1970s, the BR conceived of the press as an “instrument of war,” discounting media and party claims that they and other “red terrorists” were neo-Fascist creations. They threatened: “To the psychological war we shall respond with psychological war and retaliation.” Spokesmen for the BR also said their main aims in the Moro kidnapping were “prisoner exchange” and political recognition through the use of “armed propaganda.” Their objective was to prove that the day of proletarian deliverance was near at hand. To accomplish these aims, the BR had to follow the news canons previously described (i.e., conflict, timeliness, symbolism, recognition, maximum effect, escalation, and drama). The BR strategy was clearly dramatic in its initial use of violence and death and symbolic in its choice of a famous statesman and party leader, Aldo Moro. They attacked the state itself since Moro, the former prime minister, was expected to be the new president of Italy before year’s end. They maximized the goal of social and political recognition since, under Moro’s leadership, a historic and unifying compromise between the Christian Democratic, Socialist, and Communist parties seemed at hand. Timeliness was also achieved since this “attack at the heart of the state” was in conflict with the new national solidarity cabinet which was t be announced on the very day of the kidnapping. They also drastically challenged the entire democratic system’s ability to handle its 38th postwar governmental crisis, thus achieving maximum effect (Caserta, 1978, p. 101; Rosso, 1976, p. 282; Bocca, 1985, pp. 206, 219; Payerhin, 1988, p. 61).

The BR was well known to the Italian media and readily recognized by the public. They fulfilled the black/white or good/bad values. Their past, present, and future credibility (regarding the use of violence as a political instrument) was well established and maintained as the crisis escalated with additional shootings and murders. The BR regularly supplied enough news so that the Moro case remained an international media event for nearly two months. Through their selection of a prime target (Moro) in a prominent place (Rome), with a well-planned, bloody, and efficient initial event (kidnap and murder), the BR effectively achieved maximum effect and set the news agenda in Italy for 55 days. Even in their choice of site, the BR wanted to avoid civilian casualties so that, as a spokesperson said, “we absolutely did not want the action to present any terrorist characteristics; we wanted to be clear that it was a military action directed against the state and its high representative” (Bocca, 1985, p. 208; Payerhin, 1988, p. 67). Even the choice of killing on the spot or abducting Moro had its intended media impact, since a ← 273 | 274 → political martyr was worth far less press coverage than a captive hero pleading for his life.

The technique of regularly issuing communiques and letters from Moro to the press through intermediaries kept the event on the public agenda every day. Secrecy about the captive’s location also added to the mystery, as did the media being called to retrieve secret documents hidden in seven major Italian cities. Most of the releases were announced simultaneously the day before prime news days. Since the messages were long, the papers had no choice but to print only “hot” news, leaving analysis until later. This split-second timing and planned releases of Moro’s messages also served to heighten conflict and to break the society wide open. This escalation increased even more when Moro realized that the party and the press intended not to deal with the BR. This ensured both his eventual death and subsequent martyrdom. His trial and conviction in a BR kangaroo court, photographs holding a newspaper to prove his vitality, and even the symbolic placement of his dead body in the center of Rome, on a street linking the two major party headquarters, all had mediagenic and symbolic meaning to the BR and the public. All of these events were carefully planned and implemented to achieve maximum effect on the media, public, and government.

Throughout the Moro crisis, the BR continued to gain standing and legitimacy through the media from a variety of quarters, including the Vatican and the United Nations. Pope Paul VI personally begged the BR to release Moro. Kurt Waldheim, then United Nations secretary general, referred to the BR “cause,” a term which infuriated the Italian government and required Waldheim to issue an apology for a “translation error” (Sciascia, 1978, p. 144; Payerhin, 1988, p. 75). The BR held the entire Italian Republic hostage through its media campaign and psychological warfare. During this debacle, they influenced public opinion through their managed news releases, interactions with the media, and other techniques and strategies which gained them adherents, followers, and supporters, while neutralizing much of their opposition. They accomplished these feats with the mass media’s and the state’s unwilling assistance.

For its part, Italian media coverage of the Moro tragedy followed its familiar formats (i.e., publishing accounts from various sources in a hurried fashion without the benefit of context or analysis). For example, the media offered the public neither explanations for these violent acts nor any theories about terrorism, its meaning, sources, objectives, or variants (Lumley and Schlesinger, 1982, pp. 607, 624). The Moro affair was treated much like an inexplicable natural disaster or an act of God – much like a volcanic eruption, an earthquake, or a sudden, violent storm (Silj, 1978, p. 215; Payerhin, 1988, p. 75). The media treated the Moro event like a two-month soccer game in which each of the two teams (the press/state versus the BR) used different rulebooks, though they shared the same playing field. Immediacy, undigested news, daily coverage, and inflamed rhetoric were the order of the day. As one critic noted, the tendency was to report “immediately and with ← 274 | 275 → the most details possible, even if fabricated . . . just to exhibit their own professionalism” (Bechelloni, 1978, p. 225; Payerhin, 1988, p. 78).

Though little state pressure and no prior restraint were exerted from Rome, the media practiced self-censorship. From the start, the common position of the government and the Christian Democrats was maintained. Only this perspective, one of “no negotiations,” was maintained without any consideration of alternatives. The attack was denounced and the other victims’ funerals covered, but the fate of Moro remained the true focus of attention. Paper after paper wrote of preserving his life, were it not for the overriding needs to resist “blackmail,” to respect the “law,” and to avoid making deals with terrorists.

While Moro was made a hero even before his death, the press tried to prepare the public for the inevitable. They actually began a public mourning period for him while he was still alive. Even the validity of Moro’s pathetic letters was debated, since according to Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, the views expressed were not morally ascribable to him. Appeals for Moro’s life, his family’s pleas for negotiations, and other cries for mercy went largely unheard. The media stood steadfast behind the government’s hard line of no negotiating. The news media published whatever the government distributed, without criticism or qualification, just as it did with BR demands and reports. The story line that emerged linked the future of Italian democracy with maintaining law and order through governmental intransigence. Workers’ strikes and demonstrations in the factories were taken as symbols of popular support for the government, though management was behind some of them. Newspapers also took this opportunity to attack one another with accusations of support or sympathy for the BR cause. False interviews were also published to support such allegations. Other themes of unity, stability, public support, consensus, and maintaining democracy were also used symbolically throughout the period (Silj, 1978, pp. 45, 50, 65, 80, 93, 97, 117, 211, 231; Lumley and Schlesinger, 1982, pp. 609, 613, 619; Payerhin, 1988, p. 75).

Front page coverage, banner headlines, photographs, and large amounts of space were devoted to the continuing coverage of the Moro incident. In three papers, the entire front page was regularly used for this purpose. Practically all other political, cultural, and foreign news was blacked out. On selected days, from one-quarter to one-half the news (average 37%) was devoted to this story. This emphasis was so great and so unusual that it, too, became a general subject of concern in media debates. This situation produced a curious logical impasse. That is, the media regularly assured its readers the BR could not paralyze the state, yet the media coverage seemed to convince the public that all other public business was at a standstill (Silj, 1978, p. 49; Payerhin, 1988, p. 86).

Foreign media treatment of the Moro case was a microcosm of Italian press coverage. Themes in the foreign press denounced the “terrorists”’ the small number of “criminals” responsible; and the “ruthless” band of “psychopaths,” “professional killers” and “murders,” “fanatics,” and “savages.” They were also branded as ← 275 | 276 → “Marxist urban guerrillas” and “Marxist revolutionaries,” seeking to throw the country into a civil war (Davies and Walton, 1983, p. 40). These opinions were primarily based on official government sources, had few terrorist sources, and did not mention any public support or underlying causes for the BR actions. The use of quotation marks surrounding the name Red Brigades and phrases such as so-called of self-styled BR appeared frequently, particularly early on in the drama. The international media (excluding Pravda) also gave the story regular, prominent, and front page coverage. The treatment of the BR in US, Western and Eastern news media (e.g., New York Times, Washington Post, Manchester Guardian, Tribuna Ludu [Warsaw, Poland], CBS, NBC, BBC, ZDF, ARD, etc.) never analyzed the complexities of international, revolutionary violence. The media preferred to reduce the story to an irrational act – without meaning, cause, ore explanation. Davies and Walton’s analysis noted:

. . . a pattern of description which is not simply biased in favor of parliamentary democracy as one would expect, but which strongly prefers certain parties, positions and ideologies over others which legitimately inhabit the legislative sphere both in and outside the parliament.

The visual and verbal content of the Moro news story tells more about the maintenance of an ideologically safe version of consensus by media demarcation than it does about the “events” which constitute the news (Davies and Walton, 1983, p. 48).

The Moro kidnapping has also been analyzed from a mythical perspective. Moro’s martyrdom achieved social consensus. This event symbolized an end to social division through the historic compromise (Davies and Walton, 1983, p. 8). This sort of dramatic analysis can also be applied to other violent incidents such as the October 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking when the sole victim, his wife, and family were eulogized for two weeks in the New York Times until he became a hero and a symbol of all that was good in America. This later justified the US diversion (hijacking) of the four terrorists on an Egyptian airliner to a NATO landing strip in Italy. The following year, the US responded to the Berlin disco bombing, in which several US military personnel were killed and injured, by bombing Libya to punish Qaddafi for his allege involvement. This “take a life, bomb a city” response completely lacked proportionality. However, the press and public voiced little opposition to this raid which the UK assisted and France rejected, in terms of permission to overfly sovereign territory (Lule, 1988, pp. 115).

The Systemic Relationship Between Terrorism and the Media

All forms of terrorism cannot be defined or described simply, nor can their relationships to different news media and governments be generalized. Nevertheless, it is possible to capture some of their essential relationships using a schematic diagram. Figure 1 lays out some of the key elements in this dynamic ← 276 | 277 → interactive relationship among terrorist groups, the media, terrorism, public opinion, and public policy decisions. A democratic political system, in which a relatively free and unfettered press normally functions, is hypothesized. The key terms used in the diagram are as follows:

1. Terrorist Groups have various objectives and take different actions, all involving violence of the threat of violence. Most objectives are global, vague, changing, and ideologically rooted.

2. Mass Media include national and international radio, television, newspapers, magazines, and other print and nonprint news media which set the public’s agenda. Media coverage may be exhaustive or minimal, firsthand or secondary, dramatic, and violence-prone, with no attempt to analyze underlying group motives or social causes. Media magnify, distort, and oversimplify through use of value-laden, establishment-based stereotypes, usually obtained from governmental sources.

3. Terrorism is a larger-than-life product of media treatment. The result is a concept, affect, and throughput, which bears little resemblance to the much smaller, insignificant group which initiated the threatened violence.

4. Public Opinion is the national and international set of values, opinions, attitudes, feelings, and concepts/cognitions on which the public bases its supports and demands for given public policies or preferred state action.

5. State Action and Public Policies in part rely on media information, public opinions (usually vague and uninformed), establishment goals, and independent information. All terrorist activity is automatically branded unlawful, unjust, and nonnegotiable. But the response thereto varies with the importance of victims, the options available, and the accessibility of the terrorist group for the imposition of sanctions. Negotiations, as a first step, and use of violent interdiction as a last step in the process, are more routine today than in the early 1970s. The public policy on media coverage, laws nationalizing the media (as in a military alert), or regulations governing allowable media activity are made under the umbrellas of “national security” or ensuring “law and order.” There is an underlying supposition that the normally establishment-oriented media are difficult to control, predict, or manage in such situations. Therefore, media are potentially more threatening to regime maintenance, perhaps even more so than the terrorist activity itself.

6. Political Environment consists of the political culture and history, the normal level of order, violence, press freedom, or democracy in the society. Also of the influence are other governments and international organizations, as well as the international media network. ← 277 | 278 →

Figure 1: Terrorism and the mass media: an interactive system

A useful construct for the analysis of the relationship between terrorism and mass media is deviance amplification. This process, as it applied to drug use, was described in the work of Leslie Wilkins and Jock Young in 1965 and 1973, respectively. Their work depicts a “deviancy amplification spiral,” whereby society defines a group as deviant and isolates their members. The ensuing group alienation results in increased deviancy and increased social reaction resulting in more deviancy, more isolation, and further escalation of the initial so-called abnormality. The dynamics of the interactions between the agencies of social control and the deviant group are also influenced through information provided by the mass media. This information is on drug uses, the police, the extent of public indignation, possible societal responses, and statistics on drug abuses. The whole “fantasy stereotype” of the drug taker is a media fabrication which, while untrue early in the process, assumes greater reality as the self-fulfilling prophecy about the drug culture increases. The result is increased isolation, more secrecy, ossification of values, greater group cohesion, more professional distribution of drugs, and increased public demands for solutions and social control (Cohen and Young, 1973, p. 350).

Much the same process occurs with respect to the interaction between media and terrorist groups in the nature of terrorism has been greatly changed with the help of the mass media (see Figure 1). Reports from a given terrorist group with its peculiar or unique aims and style of violence are picked up as news by the everwatchful ← 278 | 279 → media after coverage of a violent incident or release of a group’s claim of responsibility for an act. The mass media lens or filter then starts the magnification process, using terms and negative imagery, such as disorder, violence, threat, irrationality, secret society, ruthless criminals, fanatics, etc., which produces a new and larger social phenomenon labeled terrorism.

The term terrorism has certain encoded meanings, for example, civil war, guerrilla actions, widespread violence, crisis, proletarian uprising, Marxist revolutionaries, irrationality, siege, rebellion, and extremism, with highly negative valence. Terrorism then has an impact on public opinion about the terrorist group, its motives, its causes or objectives, government’s alternatives, media reports, treatment of terrorists, victims, handling of new threats and demands, negotiations process, and surrender.

But the public does not take the raw news as gospel. Instead, people filter, compress, and interpret the news through the two step flow of communications/“opinion influencers” and conceptual frames of reference (filters). This is the sum total of previous memories, information, and attitudes about such political events as terrorist attacks, governmental corruption, trust and cynicism, and good and bad politicians. Some of the resulting impressions are either neutralized and inhibited or blocked, while others are scattered or dispersed, like light through a prism. Still others become more closely focused on political decision makers in terms of supports or demands, much as light passes through a convex lens.

The process finally results in official short- and long-term actions or public policies. These include meeting demands, mounting rescue operations, antiterrorists/media controls of guidelines for coverage, negotiation, stonewalling, news releases, etc. These are the result of information, media reports, public opinion, input from other governments, and previous public policy positions on terrorism.

These events can occur over long or short periods of time, the Moro and Iran cases being examples of long duration events, and the Achille Lauro, Munich Olympics, and TWA Flight 847, short. They also occur within a political environment which has its own levels of order, violence, or limits on legally permissible behavior. For example, the level of normal or acceptable violence may vary from that seen in relatively more violent societies, such as the US, Lebanon, and Italy, or on the high seas, where international law carries the threat of certain moral sanctions. In other settings, where an international band of terrorists may victimize the nations of one country on the soil of a third, neutral, biased, or friendly country, the legal restrictions, governing laws, or permissible level of violence also condition the environmental context in which the event occurs or is played out.

The political climate or culture of a country may help to explain public policies taken to resolve a given terrorist incident. For example, in Italy in 1978, violence in the streets challenged the political system on a daily basis. Italy was also about to witness the “historic compromise” of a parliamentary alliance among Progressive ← 279 | 280 → Christian Democrats, Socialists, and the Italian Communist party. Worker protests, high unemployment, and youth demonstrations also reflected or promoted anti-governmental cynicism and popular alienation. Within this political culture, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti voiced the intransigent government position of no negotiations and no concessions to BR terrorists, under any conditions. The Italian and international press maintained and supported the government’s stand. It naturally and inevitably resulted in doom for Aldo Moro, Italy’s own state of civil disorder and parliamentary chaos on the eve of the “historic compromise” was a critical factor in shaping the way in which the government and the news media handled the Moro crisis, the terrorists, and the story over a 55-day period. Within this political environment (characterized by the terrorist/news media/government/public opinion nexus), elements of the system interacted and fed back to one another in a dynamic fashion. That is, the BR carefully orchestrated its violence and its press releases. The government remained adamant, while selectively releasing inflammatory and self-serving news to the press. The news media repeatedly played up the themes of law and order, democracy hanging in the balance, no compromise, and the willing sacrifice of Moro for the public good against the BR’s unfounded and irrational demands, which were not to be met under any circumstances.

The press, however, had an unexpected effect on public opinion. The news audience soon realized just how feeble a threat the BR posed to the supposedly unstable and fragile political system. The public also began to identify with the BR cause against the corrupt, unstable, and unpopular Roman regime. The news media, unexpectedly and purposely, helped to bring about this viewpoint. They convinced the people of the BR’s public importance, and thereby helped to legitimize their claims and antigovernment posturing, if not their violent methods. By upholding the official party line and by not examining the underlying societal links and causes of the BR phenomenon, the news analysts failed in their task to inform the public. The media were satisfied with entertaining the masses with one new spectacular event after another. Though they tried to delegitimize the BR (along with all terrorists), the media did not succeed in their mission. Preventing this were deeply rooted social divisions endemic to the Italian political system, culture, and environment. Though the establishment line was harshly antiterrorist, the stereotyped and sensationalist treatment of the BR did not endure in the public’s consciousness. Instead, the BR was transformed into an Italian Robin Hood band, an impression which no amount of negative press could dispel.

This result should give pause to those considering the effects on public opinion of news coverage of terrorism. It seems that strongly held preexistent views provide a barrier against media penetration. When the public has a negative view of the political system, the regime, and its power brokers, any news story may not easily be able to change these perspectives. This amounts to the public having a news cosmology or ideology that it also uses a filter (or concave lens) through which ← 280 | 281 → citizens can reduce an exaggerated account into more simple pro- or anti-government, regime, or system evaluations. This exists at a much more simplified, basic, or gut level, based on preexistent political predispositions, perceptions, feelings, attitudes, and cognitions. Therefore, the desire of the government or media for public support of a predetermined public policy stance may not be forthcoming in the face of a solidified, unified, and clear expression of popular opinion. This situation, which sometimes may allow the government to carry out an unpopular policy without public hindrance or objection, may not always be transferrable to another, later, or similar incident. It may not result in renewed public support for the regime, system, or office holders. What a different governmental or mass media approach would yield remains to be seen. There is seldom, in any country (with the possible exception of Great Britain), a concern for an in-depth media analysis of causes, motives, social conditions, or alternative contexts (or lenses, in this illustration) for interpreting news about terrorist acts. Meanwhile, the public remains mystified about the roots, manifestations, and solutions to terrorism (e.g., is more or less democracy necessary?) and puts such incidents in the category of the “wrath of nature,” much like an act of God or a freak of nature – here today, gone tomorrow – lacking any rhyme or reason.

Statistics on both international and US domestic terrorism indicate a decided decline during the 1980s as compared with the number of incidents in the 1970s. In 1978, for example, out of 2725 international incidents reported, 60 were attributed to the BR, with 16 deaths in Italy. During this decade, the total number of such incidents has varied from 600 to 800 per year, with about 150 aimed at US nationals or American targets. Domestically, in 1985, for example, there were only ten actual incidents (as contrasted with 112 in 1977) due to a changed political climate, better airport security, counterterrorist activities, and more frequently thwarted attempts (e.g., 23 preventions in 1985). Though fewer in number, there is also a commensurate increase in the symbolic significance afforded attacks, such as the execution of Col. W. R. Higgins, the Terry Anderson kidnapping, the Achille Lauro/Klinghoffer incident, the TWA 847 hijacking, and the Berlin disco and TWA Lockerbee bombings. Each such incident has been associated with real or imagined American links to Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, or other Middle Eastern problems (Genovese, 1988, p. 143).

In Gerbner’s (March 1988, p. 1; July 1988, p. 1) discussion of symbolism, violence, and terror, he maintains that such “symbolic uses benefit those who control them: they are usually states and media establishments, not small-scale or isolated actors or insurgents.” Gerbner also observes:

. . . though perpetrators of small-scale acts of violence and terror may occasionally force media attention and . . . seem to advance their cause, . . . such a challenge seems to enhance media credibility . . . and is used to mobilize support for repression often in the form of wholesale state violence and terror or military action, presented as justified by provocation (Gerbner, July 1988, p. 1). ← 281 | 282 →

Prime television is also a man’s world where the power wielders control the symbols and victimize vulnerable women, the young, old, and minorities. The regular and disproportionate appearance of criminals, law enforcers, the violent, and murders bears little relationship to everyday reality; yet it accustoms us to the symbolic structures of social power. Gerbner believes such media violence “cultivates a differential sense of vulnerability and stigmatization, placing heavier burdens on selected minorities and nationalities” (Gerbner, July 1988, p. 1).

John Newhouse’s recent article on intelligence gathering and terrorism is an excellent summary of the international state of the art (or the lack thereof), in meeting terrorist threats, and in solving past mysteries about responsibility for violent and unexplained aircraft disasters. A fine piece of detective reporting, the article also lays out the human technological problems associated with curbing terrorist attacks against civilian aircraft. As Newhouse sees it, the problem is much larger than either the human or technological solutions proposed. For example, JFK airport issued 47,000 passes and Heathrow in London issued 38,000 passes onto the tarmac. The new thermal neutron analysis (TNA) machine for detecting plastic explosives is not only very expensive, bulky, and as yet unavailable, but also is not very fast. For example, it would take at least two hours to screen a fully loaded 747 jumbo jet. Since Pan Am alone has over 30 scheduled departures each day and 400 trans-Atlantic crossings per week, screening all luggage is unthinkable. With false alarms sure to slow down the system and with the inevitable resort to selective screening based on secret potential terrorist profiles, the increased measure of psychological security resulting from a new system will only last until a piece of lethal luggage slips by the underpaid and often harried airline employees (Newhouse, 1989, p. 71). What is more interesting is that at the end of his account, Newhouse reverts to a larger policy point by saying:

Terrorism feeds on the bitterness and frustration of people for whom the future seems to offer nothing, and in the attention paid to acts of violence by more of us who feel threatened by them. Another dynamic – such as a credible peace process in the Middle East – might upstage and gradually neutralize terrorism (Newhouse, 1989, p. 82).

It is interesting to note that other than passenger inconvenience, Newhouse saw no problems with the technological and human solutions proposed by airline and government officials. The reality is that one intrusive technological fix will undoubtedly lead to another, each more invasive of privacy than the last. Indeed, the real threat of terrorism is that its control will lead to a variety of new, repressive measures. This becomes more likely as research findings increasingly point to the success of repressive regimes in reducing terrorism in contrast to the fewer successes of open, democratic societies.

There are also international proposals to combat terrorism. For example, in December 1985, a UN General Assembly resolution appealed to member states to join existing international conventions on terrorism. The UN also asked members ← 282 | 283 → to act domestically against the problem, to work cooperatively with other member states and the International Civil Aviation Organization to establish new measures for law enforcement, and to take collective action against political terrorists killing innocent civilians, and taking them hostage. While recognizing that some terrorist groups are part of liberation or freedom fighting movements, General I. J. Rikhye of the International Peace Academy says others engage in sheer violence, seemingly for publicity or just for its own sake. Rikhye acknowledges that the complexities of the problem lead to simultaneous branding and counternaming pro-and anti-PLO and Israeli groups in the media as terrorists and linking states (such as Libya, Iraq, and Syria) to alleged sponsorship of violent groups they have harbored in the past. He also believes that both terrorism and military action against terrorism are equally ineffective, citing international publicity as the only gain of the first and the example of Egyptian commandos in Malta as illustrative of the second (Rikhye, 1989).

While maintaining these views, Rikhye once again proposes the need for more military cooperation to combat terrorism, namely, “an elite international peacekeeping unit, highly skilled in hostage rescue, to undertake this responsibility.” He also proposes extension of the US-USSR 1985 informal agreement which ensures shared information on chemical and nuclear terrorist activities. An agency along the lines of the UN Disaster Relieve Organization could also be established to pool information on potential terrorist activities and arrests for international security purposes. Once again, however, these approaches are reactive, post hoc, and treat the symptom, not the causes of terrorism as a public phenomenon and problem (Rikhye, 1989, pp. 20-22). Although information sharing and concerted diplomatic responses may help to resolve a terrorist incident, it is unlikely that any kind of international “SWAT” team would be able to accomplish much since the character of international terrorism changes daily.

The issue of using military force to free hostages or to retaliate against state sponsors of terrorism was widely debated in the mid-1980s. Two different views were then expressed by the former Israeli ambassador to the UN, Benjamin Netanyahu and Martha Crenshaw, professor of government at Wesleyan University. Both agreed on the fact that US nationals had increasingly been the focus of international terrorist attacks from 1968 to 1985, providing one-third of these victims during a time which saw a rise from 125 to 782 in the total annual numbers of international terrorist incidents. Each was also concerned with the role of the media in a terrorist crisis (Netanyahu, 1986; Crenshaw, 1986).

Netanyahu’s position is that modern terrorism is both state-sponsored and media-inspired. He maintains that unilateral military action (regardless of state sovereignty claims) can deter terrorism, as Israel’s example has proven since the dramatic Entebbe raid in 1976. The West fails in the war against terrorism because of greed, political cowardice, and both moral and intellectual confusion about terrorists and terrorism, he says. Instead, a combination of political and military ← 283 | 284 → courage, and the will to take risks and to speak the truth (however painful) to valorous citizen-soldiers (who must be willing to sacrifice to ensure clarity of social purpose), are the civic virtues that will overcome the fear upon which terrorism depends.

In response, Crenshaw believes that the nature of the terrorist threat changed in the 1980s. An action-reaction-escalation spiral changed the natures of the game. Terrorists now use safe harbor states, split up hostages, and practice suicide bombings. Against these acts, elite strike force teams are ineffective. Moreover, preventive and retaliatory measures must be practical and discriminate. We cannot randomly kill innocent civilians.

But will deterrence work? Will the terrorists value calculus be influenced? Crenshaw believes not. We do not understand terrorists, their frames of reference, their motivations, or how they calculate risks. While states may be deterred, terrorist groups may not. As she says, in terrorist incidents, “the glare of publicity isolates and magnifies the consequences of miscalculation and accident.” Terrorism is time-, space-, and incident-bound; it is so differentiated that it will not respond uniformly to countervailing forces.

Media must teach “the lesson of terrorism.” Ta]hat is that “even the most powerful states cannot hope to control their environments.” Since terrorism is so crisis-oriented, the media do not focus on the terrorist threat as part of the normal course of events in a disorderly world. The media hype accompanying an incident is followed inevitably by neglect and unpreparedness. This is “a pattern encouraged by the fickleness of media (especially television) attention,” which induces “complacency and a false sense of security.” Media attention not only distorts, but also glorifies violence; it fails to signify terrorism as a strategy not of warring armies, but of the weak. If this persists, it will result in the “most impressive achievement modern terrorism has claimed.” The final risk is that our response to terrorism will “transform it into the grand spectacle the terrorists sought all along and raise its practitioners to the status of mythic heroes or villains” (Crenshaw, 1986). Perhaps even more risky than such symbolic warfare are the prospects for the use of Israeli-styled repression against our own nationals and foreigners on airplanes, at the borders, and in the society at large. Violation of another nation’s sovereignty is an act of war and a serious legal lapse for a major world power. Violating citizens’ basic rights is not an acceptable alternative for the lead country in the Western alliance, priding itself on its moral, ethical, and humane values.

Two researchers have interpreted the results of their elaborate empirical and statistical cross-national study of intracountry terrorism and the contagion effect in 16 countries from 1968 to 1978 as follows:

Democratic, affluent, and well-educated states seem to have a particular difficulty in reversing terrorism, whereas autocratic, poor, and uneducated countries do not. ← 284 | 285 →

. . . Our findings reinforce warning[s] that citizens and governments of open societies must respond very carefully to terrorism in order to avoid cures that are either ineffective, or worse than the disease (Hamilton and Hamilton, 1983, p. 52).

While Newhouse sees some hope in ameliorating the terrorist threat through technological and human solutions, Morrison (1986, p. 4) has little faith in a “technocratic consciousness” that would use information technology, replete with abundant “noise,” or an ABM/SDI defense mode, frequently plagued by “misses” and “false alarms,” to solve problems which stem from human aggression, conflict, disputes, and grievances. In the end, such human surveillance fixes may be used in an Orwellian fashion to solve the terrorist problem should even a few climactic incidents validate the need. When repression and invasion of privacy arrive, in addition to finding the few guilty criminal conspirators, human error will surely take its toll on the many innocent bystanders. Major US airlines are already collecting travelers’ passport numbers months in advance of overseas flights so they can run them through for computer checks.

Alternatively, Morrison sees that many of the world’s most pressing problems (e.g., species destruction, nuclear weapons, resource rape, and poverty) require nontechnical and human analysis and solutions if they are to be ameliorated. We ignore at our peril the human causes of war, environmental destruction, and starvation. The Third World hungers not from a lack of land, seed, or contraception but rather from historical and continued “Western exploitation, intervention, and manipulation” (Morrison, 1986, p. 15). Technological solutions to these crises or the problem of terrorism will not work, but human efforts just might. As Morrison said, “Nevertheless, while human efforts (compromise, negotiation, intermediaries, etc.) may indeed fail, they offer the real possibility of providing solutions.” And, he continued:

The possibility remains therefore that components of the terrorist problem are resolvable through continuing human efforts at resolution. But based on the evidence that has been presented, the success of such efforts is compromised by the dominant technocratic consciousness and its reflexive reaching for familiar off-the-shelf solutions (Morrison, 1986, p. 14).

Jimmy Carter’s credentials as one such mediator are longstanding and philosophically based. They were substantiated in 1979 with agreement on the Camp David accords. They last to the present day in that he arranged for an Ethiopian peace conference at his Presidential Center in Atlanta in September 1989. During his administration, the Iran crisis proved to be nonnegotiable. In part, this was because the political goal of the hostage release was timed to embarrass Carter and benefit Ronald Reagan at the start of his presidency. This might even be one of the compelling reasons why Reagan later chose to do what he pledged never to do: trade arms from the “Great Satan” nation for US hostages. ← 285 | 286 →

In Carter’s case, every solution for the Iran crisis was considered (as was his usual style), including an ill-fated rescue attempt and an eleventh-hour proposal for a military invasion to save his presidency. The daily pressure CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite, who repeated the countdown on the length of captivity each day, placed on the administration delivered Carter’s presidency into the hands of two elements: the Iranians and the American people. Both groups believed in Carter’s media-created impotence; each was determined to prove this self-fulfilling prophecy by retaining the hostages until Reagan’s inauguration day and by turning him out of office, respectively. The passion for diplomacy which Carter evidenced at Camp David and in the Panama Treaty accords did not always bear fruit, as his Salt II Treaty failure proved. However, the US news media, as much as the Iranian mullahs, were behaving irresponsibly when they depicted Carter as a failed leader. Their demands for action in this media-generated crisis, when no action save a bloody war was possible in the face of an intractable Iranian theocracy, cannot be termed responsible, however much it was “good television” of a “good story.” Despite Carter’s failure Martin and Walcott (1988) correctly conclude that a combination of diplomacy and law enforcement can best contain international terrorism.

The imposition of an idealistic or pluralistic model of communications on the terrorism/government/media interrelationship will not yield a panacea. More public discourse or improved news reporting formats will not solve the problem of terrorism either as an issue, an event, or a policy question. Terrorism as a media event (along with drugs, alcohol, crime, or drunken driving) is related to the larger question of establishing proportionate media perspectives on national and international problems. One related issue is the media’s role in social control and the allocation of power, which Der Derian (1989, p. 158) calls “part of the hegemonic domination of given societies.” Another issue is the need for national security-obsessed states to begin using international diplomacy and new social programs to address root causes of terrorism, rather than resorting to knee-jerk military responses as the first – rather than the last – solution.

Media self-censorship or governmental cooptation of the media are not reasonable policy alternatives in democratic societies. However, the belief in media determination as the root cause of the terrorist “theater of terror” assists central governments in their regular attempts at social control. But this is an inherently undemocratic, unnecessary, and ineffective policy. Since both media and governmental representatives control the language of rhetoric and discourse surrounding terrorism, an attempt on the part of both to differentiate between criminal and ideological terrorist acts would be a proper starting point. Each could clearly focus on the media-dominated objectives of terrorists; for example, as providing the context for explaining terrorists’ communication objectives to their fellow terrorists, the media, governments, public opinion, and others. The manipulation of the media through terrorist activities is also a topic that media and ← 286 | 287 → governmental officials can elucidate during a crisis since the mass audiences become willing victims of terrorist propagandists, whose efforts usually succeed in enhancing their status and their cause (Weimann, 1983, pp. 38-45).

Since presidents and prime ministers (as national spokespersons) help to frame the terrorist event, they can help to reduce panic, define the crisis, clarify roles (as victim or perpetrator), signify competence, and present nonmilitary options. When an administration and the media treat terrorism as high drama, the mythmaking ability of the press is enhanced and military intervention, which is seldom actually used, is legitimated in a cops-and-robbers, good-guy or bad-guy scenario. Strangely enough, government and media leaders do not understand that, as Palmerton (1988, p. 107) says, “[i]t is the response which becomes the primary persuasive vehicle for the terrorist.” The terrorist, in other words, seeks the status of a victim, and therefore, encourages repressive responses. Terrorists’ challenges to state authority encourage public support for subsequent state repression, violence, terror, or military action. The media assist in legitimizing this state-sponsored counter-violence, and such justifications allow more authoritarian rule to secure a firmer hold over the domestic society as well (Gerbner, 1988, p. 3). The process of consent building, in which the media play a vital role, may produce a public which is not only amenable to suppression of terrorism at any cost, but is also willing to accept self-repression (Dobkin, November 1989, pp. 4, 10).

The media create reality and, through their interpretive frames and social conventions, teach readers and viewers not just what to think, but what to think about. Media decision makers (publishers, editors, and directors) not only share the dominant elite views toward public policy but also shape their reports in this context for public consumption.

Democracy, pluralism, nationalism, social responsibility, and order are key themes which describe these “media frames” of reference. Such conventions have so distorted terrorism reportage on the networks that Middle Eastern terrorism is exaggerated, Latin American and anticorporate terrorism is minimized, and government victimization is espoused. According to one study of the 1969-1980 period,the actual pattern of world terrorism is different from that portrayed on the networks. When news broadcasts and stories are produced within these institutionalized modes, they serve to create the so-called public character of events, a function shared with political officials and celebrities, who also share responsibility for this agenda setting role. Since politicians rely on journalists and vice versa for information, this symbiotic relationship is especially critical during a terrorist crisis when news may be managed and state power is no longer veiled. As a vital part of this process of norm encoding and image creation, politicians also label “good” and “bad” terrorists ans “enemies” or “freedom fighters” to produce public support for national policies. When applied to terrorists, these labels short circuit popular thinking and reduce the community’s opportunity to think about causes of injustice (Gerbner and Gerbner, July 1988, p. 1). ← 287 | 288 →

David Altheide’s (1987, pp. 161, 174) US and UK cross-national analysis of television coverage of an IRA terrorist incident in 1982 indicates that the format of a news show also has an impact on the message an audience receives. That is, event-type formats focus on visuals and tactics, whereas topic-type formats (with interviews and documentaries) better deal with the purposes, goals, and basis for terrorism incidents. In other words, visuals are more restrictive than are contextual and documentary formats, which increase the chance for elite and audience reflection. Consequently, one clear signal of impending government repression is the higher likelihood of restriction of the latter format, which Britain has done with respect to IRA and the US with respect to Canadian and USSR documentaries. Government leaders prefer to use “one-liners” and event formats to inform the public, engineer consent, label, depersonalize, and delegitimize the “enemy,” and curry favor for governmental positions, however untenable. The increasingly common pictorial news headline format, which is “just good television,” helps to achieve these purposes.

Cross-national surveys at the end of the 1970s indicated that most West Germans, British, and Americans believed terrorism was a very serious problem. Respondents wanted the death penalty for terrorists, sanctioned use of “special forces,” and accepted police state or extraordinary measures against them. They also accepted news embargoes and monitored conversations with lawyers during a terrorist crisis. Also of concern was being careful not to appear pro-terrorist. This meant opposing the death penalty, supporting legal aid, feeling pity, or believing some of the terrorist’s criticisms were unjustified (Gerbner and Gerbner, July 1988, p. 3). Despite these popular fears, Gerbner maintains the greatest threat is “collective, official, organized and legitimized violence.” Television violence and small-scale terrorist attacks are not as dangerous to social stability as are “illicit commerce, wars, unemployment, and other social trends that allow the wielders of power “to depersonalize enemies, to cultivate vulnerability and dependence in subordinates, to achieve instant support for swift and tough measures at home and abroad in what is presented as an exceedingly mean and scary world” (Gerbner and Gerbner, July 1988, p. 3).

The government is one of the prime sources of emotional and pejorative descriptions of anti-state activities. Nevertheless, it is strange, indeed, that the FBI and State Department are often the prime movers behind media and public policies designed to ensure self-control or to mandate guidelines for media’s coverage after each such violent frenzy. Terrorists are such an embarrassment to the US State and Defense Departments that Secretaries George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger wanted nothing to do with the Iran-contra arms deal, which Poindexter and North managed out of the Reagan White House. In 1988, Shultz banned Arafat from attending the United Nations meeting in New York, forcing the General Assembly to meet in Geneva. His rationale was based on the PLO’s alleged terrorist links and nonrenunciation of terrorism. Arafat subsequently renounced terrorism, terrorist ← 288 | 289 → organizations, and terrorist links to the eventual satisfaction of the Reagan administration. Although the significance of these pronouncements in terms of public policy decisions involving the US, the PLO, and Israel (e.g., on resolving the future of the West Bank) remains clouded, the fact that Bush administration diplomats have met with PLO representatives and that the PLO has lately agreed to become part of the antiterrorist network holds promise for more agreements in the future.

Official party lines in approved articles from US military personnel also speak of controlling the media to control terrorism. For example, a Quantico-based Marine Corps provost marshal has joined the call for a “war” against terrorism, with the media conscripted to play a vital part in the process (Wilber, 1985, pp.20-23). He says that “something more than peacenik campouts around our European missile installations ought to be considered in our terrorist planning.” This officer was very much in favor of professional media guidelines along ethical lines in contrast to those based on “event-oriented sensationalism” or “mundane commercialism.” Unless the media clean up their act, the colonel said, “assertions of national interest may ultimately take priority over the public’s historic rights to be informed.” Guidelines need to be “mutually acceptable, realistic, and workable” and “applied by both sides during terrorist incidents,” but so done that they “do not foster the idea of ‘sides’” (Wilber, 1985, p. 21). For example, USIA proposals for a blue ribbon panel on media self-regulation and guidelines were also endorsed as topics for media and law enforcement discussions, after socializing in ice-breaker sessions. These sessions could relieve media paranoia and lead to soul-searching recognition by the media that they are part of both the problem and the solution.

The media themselves must resist manipulation, dissuade imitators, and use proportionality, balance, objectivity, context, and minimum intrusiveness in their terrorist coverage. These principles require the use of pools, less obtrusive lighting, limits on interviews primary reliance on officially designated spokesmen as sources of information, and avoidance of tactical questioning. They should also delay inflammatory reporting, suppress information on incident locations, obscure tactical information, balance information from participants with official sources, use predisclosure verification of facts, and avoid the spectacular. These are basic and commonsense, workable, and palatable media guidelines, according to the provost marshal. “The right of a hostage to survive and the right of a society to self-preservation are also important rights, too important to be left to the media” (Wilber, 1985, p. 23). To ensure reasonable accommodation, the media and its academic allies must accede to these simple rules of operation. Zemel versus Rusk (1965) was quoted approvingly to the effect that “[t]he right to speak and publish does not carry with it the unrestrained right to gather information” (Rusk, 1965, pp. 16-17).

Just why the US government should be seeking self-restraint or prior restraints on media’s – and especially television’s – coverage of terrorism or should be enlisting ← 289 | 290 → the media as an ally in the “war” against terrorism is not easily explained. With such limitations in place, the media establishment’s quasi-adversarial role vis á vis the government would be further compromised through another form of governmental cooptation. When the concept of a “war on terrorism” comes into being, the media partners risk becoming tools or voices for the state, much as they did with managed news events during the Grenada invasion, the Libyan air strike, and other military operations against Libyan aircraft and the Achille Lauro hijackers.

Press treatment of incidents such as the TWA 847 case is usually rather bland, pro-government biased, and hostage oriented. Atwater’s (1988, pp. 1-8) study of network news coverage of the TWA flight 847 hijacking indicated that there was massive television coverage of this event, with 12 hours of coverage devoted to it over the June 14-30, 1985 period. Although Laqueur (1977) and Alexander (1978) maintain that publicity is the key to terrorism’s success and that establishment media wittingly or unwittingly are tools of terrorist strategy, this did not prove true in the TWA case study.

Atwater found that most reports came from Washington or New York and few from the actual site. Over half of the stories were on hostage conditions and US government reactions. Far fewer focused on terrorist demands, acts, Islam, or Lebanese internal or external difficulties. While the coverage was “dramatic, reactive, and extensive,” the Iranian crisis mode of reporting was used. It had great detail, but no interpretation or education useful to the viewers, this finding was similar to that noted in the Paletz, et al. (1982, pp. 146-165) study of the IRA, FALN, and Red Brigades coverage in network news. The networks treated these groups evenly, covering the same events with a similar portrayal. There was not legitimacy afforded the groups. Their causes were not defined as just. No explanation was given of the causes or objectives behind the acts of violence, and most stories did not even mention the organization or its supporters. In a follow-up study of network news coverage of terrorism (see Milburn, et al., reported in Gerbner and Gerbner, 1988), not only were such causes ignored, but severe mental instability was also ascribed to both terrorists and their leaders. This line, of course, implies that no negotiations are possible with “crazy people.”

Since governments have, or ought to have, control of the scene of a crisis or crime, they can limit media access as they would in any war, crisis, or emergency zone. Publishing and reporting terrorist events, however, are responsibilities of the press, not the government. As Dallas Morning News Executive Editor Ralph Langer (Genovese, 1988, p. 151) said, “the basic cause of terrorism is not news coverage. . . . Terrorism comes from real or perceived disputes and problems that aren’t resolved.” Should media ignore terrorism, terrorists may well escalate the level of violence. Further, the credibility of the press will be questioned across the board if terrorism is squelched in the news. As Chicago Tribune Editor James Squires maintains: ← 290 | 291 →

No policy other than a policy balancing hostages with national security and readers’ interests is all that can be hoped for in a free and responsible press environment. . . . We don’t want to be used and manipulated by anyone. So we try to be as skeptical and as cautious about being compromised in the interest of some special cause or group of people as we are on a day-to-day basis when we deal with government (Genovese, 1988, pp. 151-152).

Should such guidelines be negotiated or legislated, they would likely be unenforceable. The press would also be made to suffer for any alleged violations. When the government seeks involuntary guidelines and prior restraint, the classic case of the sovereign blaming the messenger who brought the bad news comes to mind. Should the press be forced to surrender its historic role as the fourth estate’s check on governmental power as a specious palliative to quiet minimalist terrorism? The government and the terrorists may each share an interest in controlling the press, but the public’s interest is certainly not thereby served.

In this regard, R. J. Rummel’s (1988, p. 60) studies of the relationships among political systems, violence, and war are worth noting. Rummel’s empirical research indicated that the more democratic a political system, the less likely the incidence of internal violence against its people and the less likely the event of war with other states, particularly democratic states. The reverse is true for totalitarian states. Internal violence in the 20th century has been three times as bloody as that from all the wars in this time period. Rummel concluded that, “[i]n a nutshell, democratic freedom promotes nonviolence” To “minimize collective violence” and elements of war, “. . . one must embrace and foster democratic institutions, civil liberties, and political rights here and abroad” (Rummel, 1988, p. 60). This proactive democratic stance toward preventing internal and external violence may also be applicable as a tool in the real campaign against terrorism at home and abroad.

Other advocates of proactive media roles for conflict resolution hope to reduce group grievances, frustration, and despair by using forums and encouraging free expression. These vehicles would afford a hearing, provide legitimacy when appropriate, and lend credibility to the unnecessary use of violence in a media-rich society. Present media modes reward terrorists for using violence; new modes could reward the sensible discussion of nonviolent alternatives to past aggression, fearsome reports, coerced coverage, and lengthy media-prolonged violence. Though these alternatives, like the diffusion theory (as an alternative to the contagion theory), are worthy of consideration, the, like allege media-exacerbating behavior, are als based on informed judgments or suppositions. That is, although they are hypotheses, they are still sound ideas worthy of testing. The provision of a UNO office to the PLO; extensive Western media coverage of Arafat, Gaza, and West Bank Palestinian uprisings; PLO acceptance of Israel and rejection of terrorism; and US diplomatic initiatives toward the PLO are all recent and relevant developments. They indicate that what Secretary of State Shultz as recently as 1988 called a “terrorist group” (thus refusing Arafat a US visa to speak at the United ← 291 | 292 → Nations) may eventually enjoy UN observer status, as does Switzerland. And the US moral stature cannot be increased through an erratic policy which one day declares a group anathema and the next day offers it a seat at the bargaining table.

Of course, post hoc interviews with those responsible for prior violent acts, such as the IRA, PLF, Red Army, or Animal Liberationists, also make some sense. The group’s motives, grievances, plans, and demands can be safely revealed in these “media therapy” sessions, which provide a safety valve and a legitimate platform for dissenting views. Causes, policies, alternatives, shared selection of and control over topics, propaganda encounters, and deep and informed questioning would be necessary parts of such formats. Replies to critics who are sure to label them as “meet your friendly neighborhood terrorist” shows must also be considered. But unless the national government is supportive of, and participates in, such programs, they are likely to fail. Even the recent Columbia School of Journalism Media Studies Center series, which focused on the media and terrorism, failed to have any “guests of dishonor” at the event. No PLO, IRA, PQ, Basque, or Puerto Rican Nationalist advocates or spokespersons were present. Trying terrorism in absentia in such forms, which specialize in exchanging the conventional wisdom about media guidelines (voluntary or imposed) versus press freedom, will do little to prevent forthcoming violence in which media are sure to be major actors. Since 1982, the British government has actually used the threat of IRA terrorism to restrict English press freedom and, more recently, to circumscribe the right of witnesses against self-incrimination – a 300-year-old procedural due process rule which applies to all citizens, terrorists and nonterrorists alike. Similarly, the US State Department strenuously opposed an NBC news interview of 3.5 minutes duration in May 1986 with a PLF leader involved in the Achille Lauro hijacking. A spokesperson claimed that “terrorism thrives on this kind of publicity,” and it “encourages” that which we are seeking to “deter” (Picard, July 1988, p. 6).

Healthy debates about the broader causes of violence (e.g., publicity seeking, easy transport, cheap weapons and explosives, private and governmental funding, and media and governmental intransigence) may be more useful contexts for media-based discussions of the terrorism dilemma (Picard, July 1988, p. 5). Rather than seeking a single cause for this seemingly irrational and antistatist form of protest (which has existed for thousands of year), terrorism must be placed in the context of typical violent reactions to the existence of normally violent societies. Moreover, the realities of modern technology have promoted the state’s monopoly on the use of force. World arms sales annually total in the hundreds of billions. A puny group of terrorists is nothing compared with the thousands of preventable highway, drug, and job-related deaths every year or a 3-million person US military establishment, with annual budgets approaching $300 billion per year. This is just another necessary part of the context needed for understanding terrorism in the late 20th century. ← 292 | 293 →

Recent events such as the Pan Am flight 103 bombing in December 1988 and the poisoned Chilean grapes incident in March 1989 indicate that terrorism has transformed itself in a variety of ways. No group claims responsibility for the crimes, the incidents are at the miniature or micro levels (a transistor radio bomb or hypodermic syringe filled with poison), and the protagonists and antagonists operate at the highest symbolic level of abstraction (i.e., symbols of a whole country are randomly threatened and/or attacked). These recent events also portend the likely continuance of this micro-level violence. It, perhaps, may take on still newer forms, such as the use of chemical-biological weapons rather than nuclear suitcase-size devices. These will have total, surgical, quick, and limited geographical effects on a specific population group, such as a city. Biological-chemical terrorists would not run the risk of unexpected, collateral, and universally unpopular results which would follow even the smallest nuclear explosion.

When handling these recent events, the Western media mainly showed the carnage, ascribed blame to the British and American governments for inadequate forewarning, and provided emotional coverage of victims’ families. The grape incident was handled in a fashion that played up public fears, intensified the danger, and illustrated governmental (FDA) competence in protecting the public’s health and safety. Without a clear sense of a victim, victimizer, demand, goal, or continuing dramatic process in the Pan Am 103 bombing, the media were forced to improvise in their reporting formats. While they met the standard criteria for news, these bizarre occurrences failed to meet the typical standards for a terrorist drama. Once again, however, the media greatly magnified these events as threats to us all as well as incidences of sudden and unexpected violence. Yet they continually failed to provide any context (other than governmental competence of blundering) for the public to interpret these new features of the changing face of international terrorism.

The political environment or symbolic context for terrorism also relates to the centrality of the pledge of allegiance debate in the 1988 presidential elections. National pride and personal loyalty were introduced as campaign issues, just as they previously had been in the Klinghoffer case, the Achille Lauro hijacking, and the TWA 847 incident, in which a living symbol of America’s military was denigrated, brutalized, and murdered. When national emotions are allowed to exaggerate what is essentially a police matter into an international incident which provokes (as did the bombing of the Berlin disco) a military assault on Libya and the US counterhijacking of an Egyptian ally’s plane as responses to terrorism, more sensible options must surely be available. This is merely “knee-jerk” patriotism, which invites even further provocation and combative retaliation down the line.

As a case in point, on January 8, 1988, Ted Koppel, host of ABC’s Nightline, had Yassir Arafat as his guest. Arafat maintained that the US and Israel were united in “state terrorism” against Palestinian, Libyan, and other peoples. Though Koppel pressed him, Arafat held his ground. Moreover, the abundant international media ← 293 | 294 → coverage which Arafat received in 1988 (during the UNO Geneva meetings and as a result of the US-PLO diplomatic rapprochement) failed to inspire a rash of terrorist incidents or proterrorist sentiment in the US or elsewhere. Though Arafat received widespread media coverage, the state-directed antiterrorist system has not collapsed. Censoring him or other advocates of unpopular, antiestablishment positions in the US makes no sense in a democratic society.

Short-term solutions to the terrorist-media interaction often focus on media self-censorship, responsibility, and restraint. For example, the Hartford Courant’s editor and publisher, Michael Davis, recently endorsed media self-censorship in the recent Lt. Dol. William Higgins murder and the Joseph J. Cicippio videotapes widely broadcast on network television. Davies applauded ABC and Peter Jennings, the ABC News superstar anchorman, for refusing to be “used as a vehicle by terrorists” and labeling the event “a characteristic tactic to put pressure on the US and Israel via the American public” (Davies, 1989, p. 83). Charles Glass, and ABC correspondent and former videotaped hostage also joined in support of the ABC position by claiming that such broadcasts “hurt the hostages’ position because it was doing exactly what the captors wanted.” Davies applauded the ABC position and said this was a far cry from the TWA flight 847 hijacking days when the networks were used “as a megaphone for terrorists” because their job was to report the news, competition demanded it, and the consequences were irrelevant. Despite their “lack of restraint,” ABC News and Jennings, said Davies, “are blazing new tails for television without leaving the American public uninformed.” He added, “Hooray for them. When will the other networks catch up?” In addition to providing a fine example of the prevailing view on prior self-restrint, it is also interesting to contrast Davies’ earlier views on the media’s need to avoid “a conspiracy of silence” in terrorist reporting (Davies, 1985).

Before the business of government becomes regulation of the news in the name of national security and symbolism, the free press needs to inform the public about policy alternatives and just what is at stake. This may mean antagonizing the old or new power brokers, who would have the media promote even more of their private financial, oligopolic, and corporate interests, which deregulation has only encouraged. Mass media news coverage is tame, bland, and establishment-oriented as it is. To promote further restrictions would not only be redundant, it would also serve to erode our shrinking press freedom even further.

Discussion and Conclusions

The foregoing analysis of the terrorism/media/government/public opinion/policy-making connection is mainly useful for a general analysis of the topic. It helps, perhaps, to explain how the media have interacted with the US cultural milieu to affect American norms, values, attitudes, interests, and perceptions about terrorism as a recurrent crisis event and its perception as an enduring public problem. The broadcasting industry is but one part of a broader institutional framework for the ← 294 | 295 → identification, definition, salience estimation, evaluation, policy formulation, and assessment of terrorism as a public issue.

The focus of this chapter has been on those aspects of the terrorist phenomenon in which the media play a critical role. This is mainly in determining the definition, ownership, context, agenda, importance, proportionality, selection of alternatives, technological ramifications, power relationships, and evaluative aspects of the issue. These are all important parts of the terrorism question. They are also ones to which media are closely linked – as are the terrorists, the US government, other governments, and public spectators. The latter also serve as cheerleaders, critics, consumers, judges, and juries in evaluating and assessing media and official policies and countermeasures.

The communication aspects of this political, economic, and social problem are vital parts of the eventual solution used to resolve or ameliorate terrorism as a problem or crisis. Be they active military or countercrimianal (i.e., forcible) options, active negotiations, or passive acceptance or forbearance of that which is intractable (hostages in captivity), the media are as much partners in the event as are the other major dramatic actors. Resolution of this problem, with its international dimensions, would require looking at the phenomenon from other important vantage points of the policy process. These include careful examination of hidden and preexistent causes of the multidimensional problem, nonmilitary policy options that have proved successful in the past, media techniques for context development, and continual search for a favorable climate to encourage international, diplomatic, and law enforcement solutions to such incidents, each of which has both unique and generic features.

In both its international and domestic forms, terrorism has many guises and multiple causes. It is not a monolith any more than world communism has ever been. Simplistic solutions, such as using strike teams, demanding media self-censorship, threatening military invasion, bombing terrorist training camps, declaring war, or otherwise violating international law, will only create much larger problems (the dimensions of which are beyond speculation) for Americans. The policy implications of US options seriously considered in past international conflicts (e.g., carrying the ground war in Vietnam to the north; using force to break the Berlin blockade’ invading Cuba, Iran, or Libya; placing large numbers of American military “advisers” in Afghanistan or Nicaragua, etc.) are too horrific to contemplate. Each of these untried options would have been costly, deadly, and disastrous in the long and short run. No pax Americana or pax Sovietica against world terrorism has been or will be possible in our lifetimes, nor is this a necessary, desirable, or practical hope. Terrorism as a public phenomenon is intimately and intricately connected to America’s cold war mentality, which maintained a national security state to the tune of more than $300 billion per year. American taxpayers and consumers expected more for their money than keeping the peace through deterrence. They wanted the security of a star wars umbrella, secure transportation ← 295 | 296 → technology, and a peaceful world, dominated by American national, social, economic, and political values. They distrusted the Russians, the Arabs, the mainland Chinese, the Japanese, and most of the other peoples living on what was increasingly considered to be a very scary planet.

The United States has had a long and bloody history. We have been at war (both declared and undeclared) about one-third of the time since our baptism by fire as a new nation. This violent past continues to the present day and is symbolized by comments such as that of the 1960s black radical H. “Rap” Brown (1969), who said that “violence is as American as cherry pie.” The recent Time magazine report in July 1989 on just one week of US gun-related deaths indicated that the large majority of the victims died at their own hands, were the objects of someone known to them, or were just accidents. This was a far more common cause of death than the criminal use of weapons. The number of “underclass” Americans who were victims of these weapons was conspicuous in these statistics. While standing behind our nuclear deterrents, we seldom negotiate weapons reductions, except for the recent INF and CFE treaties. The US (with the USSR) has been a principal arms merchant for the world. We commit highway mayhem daily and practice domestic violence at home with a vengeance. It extends everywhere. Knee-jerk militarism is publicly supported at every turn. For example, in August 1989, a majority of Americans wanted to send US troops into Colombia to fight narcoterrorism, and only one-third of respondents objected (based on a Newsweek poll reported on National Public Radio on August 28, 1989). Middle East Muslim spokespersons decry the use of Christian bombs dropped by Israeli aircraft against Arab noncombatants. The cycle of violence in which international terrorism is enmeshed must be broken if the US mass media are to become more civilized and humane.

The mass media have played an essential role in the construction of a national paranoia about foreign peoples and governments, into which ethnocentric schema terrorists all too easily fit. The detachment of terrorism from America’s symbolic conflict with the rest of the world (in which our national ego is improperly enmeshed beyond mere ethnocentricism) is the responsibility not only of the broadcasting industry, but also of responsible educators, clerics, politicians, opinion leaders, and world figures who regularly influence what we hold close as “our own” facts and opinions. It is these real, peace-oriented counterterrorists who can focus attention on the pressing problems of the day; hunger, homelessness, disease, drugs, authoritarianism, racism, environmental and species destruction, militarism, and so forth – from which terrorism springs and by which terrorism pales in comparison. If national and international priorities are misplaced, the mass media can help to reorient them, but this cannot be done single-handedly. The US mass media have been particularly susceptible to elite control and influence from the corporate board rooms of networks and advertisers, from the publisher and producers, or from network superstars or editors. The news we get, how much, and what type is ← 296 | 297 → prescreened and filtered through these elite few who act as gatekeepers and agenda setters. These circles of power are subject to governmental, organizational, and public pressures that can also exert influence. For example, interest groups, such as Action for Children’s Television or Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Lobby, have had some impact on televised violence or public interest reporting. There are now enough of these groups sharing a common interest in breaking the cycle of media-reinforced violence that some countervailing power against gratuitous violence can be exercised within First Amendment limits. Terrorism, crime reporting, police show, war news, and other public celebrations or unexplained violence feed on one another in a systemic and symbiotic fashion. A more careful analysis of these interrelationships, connected with efforts to break the actual cycle of domestic and international violence in which the US participates, might help produce both a less scary and less violent society against which many international terrorists now strive measure for measure.

Blaming the media for our ills (in effect, threatening to imprison the bearer of bad news) will be short-sighted and ineffective as a solution to world terrorism. The media’s responsibility in this public problem is to rethink its role along fundamental lines of analysis. Essential guidelines for the reanalysis include adopting certain overlapping maxims for a sound reassessment. These include, for example, 1) expressing unwillingness to be used exploitatively by terrorists or official spokespersons; 2) independently redefining terrorism as a public problem; 3) setting contexts for terrorist incidents in a responsible way; 4) seeking alternative nonmilitary solutions to violent domestic or international incidents; 5) developing independent sources for information on such incidents from foreign news reports and observers; 6) keeping abreast of terrorist groups through network and wire service research files and newspaper “morgues”; 7) providing regular contextual treatment in stories, broadcasts, documentaries, interviews, and discussion formats of terrorism groups, goals, countermeasures, leaders, arms, techniques, and uses of technology; 8) freely interviewing terrorist spokespersons in news segments and group discussion formats; 9) deinstitutionalizing terrorism, and recontextualizing, humanizing, and personalizing the phenomenon; 10) using the many communications levers at hand to provide terrorism with a human face; 11) providing air time to radical critics (such as Noam Chomsky) who make a case for US involvement in state terrorism and the excesses of our allies (e.g., against the oppressed Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territories); 12) developing game plans for reporting on domestic and international violence and terrorism that explore no forcible solutions until the bitter end, despite daily pressures to do otherwise; 13) developing “white papers,” television journals, television specials, and other in-depth programs on terrorism that have a life beyond the dramatic moments of their broadcasts in journalism, politics, psychology, and sociology classes and public educational forums, such as the Kettering Foundation’s National Public Issues Forums annual nationwide town meetings of citizen discussion groups and study ← 297 | 298 → circles; and 14) redefining the news canon so that terrorism can be divided into its component manifestations (i.e., domestic and international; political and economic; significant or insignificant; state-sponsored, -supported, or -aided; or private, unique or patterned; well-documented or vague – in terms of causes or perpetrators; low- or high-level symbolic; grievance-based or irrational; and like categories).

The media’s responsibility in leading such an analysis of terrorism would have wide-ranging significance for our communications proficiency and media competence. The range of significant social issues (going beyond terrorists as outcast barbarians and enemies) which could be discussed in such an approach would immeasurable contribute to our social and intellectual enlightenment as intelligent media consumers. Therefore, while we can accept media’s important role in the definition and amplification of world terrorism, one cannot blame or hold solely responsible the messenger for the message. We can, however, hold the broadcast industry responsible for helping to educate all of us on what to think about and how to respond to tomorrow’s or next year’s terrorist event, for it will surely come and in a new wrapping – conceivably chemical, biological, or even nuclear.

Current conflicts in South Africa and Northern Ireland, like the former civil war in Algeria, exhibit the elements of civil strife rather than terrorist activity. This is also true of Nicaragua, Cuba, El Salvador, Burundi, Cambodia, Chile, Angola, and other conflicts in which individual terrorist acts or wholesale mass murder took place. Media’s role is to help us sort out each type of violence, relating the facts to resistance against tyranny, wholesale slaughter, or something in between. Media must also tell us when these unheard trees fall in distant political forests, since our own government has no interest in doing so unless our official interests are threatened.

In 1946, UNESCO declared that, since wars begin in the minds of men, it is there that the defenses of peace should be constructed. Much the same is true of terrorism. The media can be frontline forces in this permanent and larger battle to wage peace and to ensure justice and popular sovereignty at home and abroad.

The course of international terrorism continues to run along well-established but increasingly meandering lines. Recent developments, all heralded in the international mass media, indicate that terrorism as a media subject still excites public interest and concern. Daily news reports, new books and articles, and television programs depict motorboat assaults on Israeli beaches, the cessation of US diplomatic initiatives toward the PLO, and the latest flaws in TNA, and surveillance techniques designed to promote airline safety. The drama of terrorism as an indigenous national problem (as with the Basques and the IRA) or as a state-supported international movement (as in the case of sanctuary for Red Brigade leaders in the German Democratic Republic along with safe passage for other notables, such as the infamous “Carlos,” in Eastern Europe) continues to interest scholars, journalists, and media consumers alike. Members of the Arafat family, ← 298 | 299 → such as Yasir and his brother, are now featured in Washington Post and Times (London) articles in conjunction with lengthy biographical specials of the “this Is Your Life” variety, which only tangentially relate to the essential features of the terrorism dialog and debate. With all this, the saga of terrorism seems to provoke either explanations, answers, or solutions (as in the debates over freedom fighter versus terrorist, national versus international responses, and national versus international causes and solutions). However, with the passage of time, the proponents of international approaches to solve such problems seem to have the edge in terms of the weight of their arguments and applicability to a changing world situation. New considerations of the multiple causes of terrorism, its varieties, similarities, and uniqueness, and like analyses point toward the utility of removing or ameliorating the causes of terrorism and increasing the use of East-West and North-South cooperation to promote information exchange, to provide extradition when warranted, and to monitor cross-national activities of potential perpetrators of violence against innocent civilians.

In this respect, the May 1990 presidential report from the Aviation Security and Terrorism Commission (which, naturally, made instant news headlines) is an anomaly, out of synch with the passage of events. This report might have been more properly titled “The Lockerbie Report” since it was a necessary political response to the tragic deaths of 270 people in December 1988. Some of the commission’s proposals (such as improving airport security procedures) are self-evident and reflect current policy anyway. However, it would have been nice if the details about TNA machine failures had not been so explicit since this might have provided a measure of comfort to travelers as well as a deterrent to some would-be bombers. Some of the commission’s other proposals (for example, appointing a new “terrorist czar” in the State Department and improving their emergency notification procedures, and allowing the CIA to do covert investigations) may or may not accomplish much. Only time will tell if these measures will have any specific (since they are unlikely to have any general) effects on terrorist activities.

To certain of the commission’s proposals, it is possible to make serious objection. For example, the Lockerbie disaster may have been linked to the July 1988 deaths of 290 Iranians from a US warship’s missiles. If so, the idea of sanctioning preventive strikes will only initiate and invite further retaliation and escalation.

The commission’s report (which fulfills a media dream) is also obviously linked to our emerging concept of low-intensity warfare, replacing the rationale for US military might now that the Soviet threat is in decline. In this fashion, the media have helped to reconvince taxpayers that they must support the defense budget to pacify a mean and scary world. It is a wonder that nowhere in the commission’s 60 recommendations does the report endorse or highlight ideas such as researching the causes of terrorism, using diplomacy, resolving conflicts, negotiating, determining peace settlements, or removing the causes of violent discontent while encouraging ← 299 | 300 → the spread of economic freedom, social justice, and political democracy. With the course of international rapprochement running so smoothly (if surprisingly) these days, it can only be hoped that the commission report has served its purposes, revived interest in the topic, and allowed us to accept its best motives as our own. It is necessary, however, to improve media channels of communication with governments, publics, and potential terrorist groups to improve our knowledge about causes, solutions, and the mass media’s future role in terrorism as a systemic symbiotic, and symbolic set of phenomena.


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