Do the media give aid and comfort to terrorists by giving their violence maximum exposure and impact at times while sanitizing the perpetrators and tainting their victims at others?
It is standard procedure for many media outlets to describe the perpetrators of terrorist acts - the premeditated slaughter of civilians - with a range of euphemisms, "militants" being the most common.
Thus, The New York Times can headline a report on the killing of a hostage as "Iraq Militants Said to Behead a Truck Driver From Bulgaria." Similarly, terrorists killed in a military strike can be described in another as "Israeli Airstrike Kills 2 Hamas Militants, Wounds 6 Bystanders." Sometimes words are substituted, with government statements about "wanted terrorists" being transformed into "wanted militants."
Conversely, highly judgmental language is used when describing counterterrorism: "murder" and "assassination" have been popular when describing Israeli targeting of terrorist chieftains, bombers and dispatchers, even when no civilians are harmed.
How to justify these choices? Media organizations allege professional objectivity. The Reuters news agency has argued that "terrorist" is an "emotive term" unbecoming to "impartial journalists." The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. takes a similar view: "Terrorist" is a subjective term, while "militant" is an objective one. The former, so the argument runs, is reportage; the second is editorializing.
These rationalizations are based on the assumption, willful or otherwise, that violence committed on behalf of an approved cause cannot be terrorist. The platitude is well known to everyone: "One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter."
In fact, being a freedom fighter, however defined, does not foreclose on the possibility that one is a terrorist. The Israeli terrorism scholar Boaz Ganor has put it well: "When you deliberately choose to attack civilians, you cannot say any more, 'I am not a terrorist because I am a freedom fighter.' Maybe you are a freedom fighter, but you are also definitely a terrorist."
Why, therefore, do the media persist in sanitizing terrorism and tainting counterterrorism? Out of bias and fear. Contrary to what is normally claimed, a bias is at work in which the nature of the attacks matters less than the identity of the parties carrying them out. This illegitimate practice started with the media disfavoring Israel and favoring Palestinians. It has not stopped there.
The same media outlets that indulge this practice also defend it vigorously. Thus, when CanWest Global Communications Corp., Canada's largest newspaper chain, altered news agency copy to restore the word "terrorist" to reports describing terrorist acts, Reuters, a leading purveyor of euphemistic reportage on terror, complained.
Revealingly, the global managing editor for Reuters, David Schlesinger, observed that naming terrorists as such could "endanger its reporters in volatile areas." As journalist Jonathan Tobin wryly observed, "Reuters is worried that the people it won't call terrorists will terrorize them." The resultant bias dictates a spurious moral neutralism that actually favors terrorists.
Without TV or the Internet, the hideous broadcasting of appeals from innocent hostages of Iraqi terrorists, followed by their televised merciless beheadings, could not succeed as a tactic to wage psychological warfare against the West. This, of course, redoubles pressure on governments to concede to blackmail and almost ensures the murder of hostages when they don't.
Far from reviewing gravely the journalistic ethics involved, media outlets, particularly in Europe, compete for the distinction of being the first to break the gruesome images of exhibition killings. This only ensures the taking of more hostages and thus the taking of more innocent lives.
Clearly, the media fail in their mission when they allege superior detachment while in reality they become obliging accomplices of terrorists. Terrorists might well continue killing, whatever the nature of the reportage. But they should receive no help from journalists. And if they do, the media cannot expect immunity from criticism.
Daniel Mandel is associate director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia and the author of H. V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist.