Monday, April 25, 2005

Blaming the Messenger

If we ignore the horrors of war they won't go away. They'll still be there. We'll just be ignorant. And, as George Orwell's Ministry of Truth told us, "Ignorance is Bliss."

Former Paul Bremer aide Dorrance Smith, in a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, suggests a link between terrorists and US television news networks via Al-Jazeera. His logic is based on a general misunderstanding of how the news media works and the ability to ignore that anyone can buy a video camera these days -- even terrorists.

Mr Smith zeroes in on videos of hostages and terrorist attacks -- notably the recent shoot down of a civilian helicopter and execution of it's sole survivor. The whole thing shot on tape by terrorists who carried out the attack.

He criticizes Al-Jazeera for airing such graphic video in its entirity. But then jumps to the conclusion that they and the terrorists must be in cahoots with US networks because the same video turns up there within minutes:

"In addition to being subsidized by Qatar, Al-Jazeera has very strong partners in the U.S. -- ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN and MSNBC. Video aired by Al-Jazeera ends up on these networks, sometimes within minutes."

Mr Smith seems to have missed the revolution of videotape -- about forty or fifty years ago. Networks monitor each other, roll tapes on each other, and air competitors' images with proper credits on the screen. Just watch any sportscast and you'll figure it out.

The Tough Call

While he has valid questions about Al-Jazeera's ties to terrorists, simply not airing video shot by terrorists does not make the event that was videotaped go away. Nor does itt make terrorists give up and never launch another attack.

Anyone with a videocamera can shoot anything from tornadoes to car crashes to their terrorist cell's operations. The video does not fuel the act -- merely record it in detail. And if it's newsworthy -- in the eyes of newsmen, not the government -- then it will make air.

While there are ethical questions in airing any such video, Mr Smith suggests there's a blanket issue of "aiding and abetting the enemy" by airing all such video. That's debatable, since it's easy to argue that these kinds of images have had more of an impact of rallying the homeland than aiding the enemy.

The Ostrich Approach

But his call on the networks to ban video simply because it was shot by terrorists is confusing. Should the History Channel not use any combat footage from German cameras to tell the story of World War II -- simply because the bad guys shot it?

More accurately, Mr Smith's opinion reflects the current Washington attitude of sweeping things under the carpet for political reasons.

This "out of sight, out of mind attitutude" is rampant in Washington. You can see it in the Bush administration's decision to scuttle State Department terrorism assessments after they showed an increase in terrorist attacks. Or Washington's sudden passion for classifying everything down to phone books as "sensitive" or "secret" information.

Truth is the First Casualty in War, Its Aid Station is the Fourth Estate

War is dirty and bloody and messy and the media should never be hamstrung to the point of hiding the true nature of war. The American people deserve to know -- good or bad -- what mess they're in.

As difficult as it is to watch -- even with the most graphic portions edited -- video can be the fairest depiction of the truth you'll find. Keeping that truth intact in the editing process is the duty of a strong, aggressive, and free press. It must never be the job of a government with a stake in what the people know and don't know.

But for the life of me, I can't figure out Mr Smith's argument that terrorist-shot video of a crash survivor forced to walk on a broken leg and then executed on the spot provokes any sympathy for terrorists.

It only fuels the resolve against such inhuman behavior. (Watching Washington)

[Crossposted at]

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