With rare exceptions, U.S. big media doesn’t subject television viewer to reruns of the September 11 attacks. The memory of that day is still too fresh and the idea that airing such images "would give terrorists a victory" is settled law.
But while images of hard-core terrorism are taboo, hostage videos exploit a loophole. If you watch the news much, in the last week you have probably seen grainy hostage videos of the four peace activists, the German contractors, and freelance journalist Jill Carroll. Apparently there is a legal dose of propaganda, even in wartime.
Iraqi-on-Iraqi kidnappings are an almost hourly occurrence, usually for fundraising or score-settling purposes. But when a Westerner is seized, it’s often a matter of days before Al-Jazeera, the Arabic language satellite network, broadcasts the grainy images of some "previously unknown group" posturing and posing with weapons and their hostage.
Having gotten their scoop, Al-Jazeera will then sell rights to the video to other networks, including American news channels. This generates income for the money-losing network and provides a measure of cover: If everyone else is airing them, why single them out?
Networks like hostage videos because they are newsworthy and form the basis for follow-on stories. There are relatives pleading for the release of their loved ones, generals asserting that we don’t negotiate with terrorists, and pundits moaning that things must really be going badly. And at many networks, the "if it bleeds it leads" rule has a corollary: If it hurts Bush, give it a push.
The problem with these hostage videos is two-fold. First, they provide aid and comfort to our enemies in time of war. While a 30-second tape by a random terror groups may lack the propaganda punch of a rambling Osama tape, it will be followed by another almost exactly like it, and then another, dampening resolve and eroding morale.
Second, the publicity these tapes provide teaches aspiring terrorists that the price of admission for an airing of their grievances is not joining the political process, but simply grabbing a foreign hostage. This endangers every foreigner in Iraq, not just those seen as occupiers.
It is ironic that Al-Jazeera gets the lion’s share of terrorists filmic output, and that Osama himself praises them on his latest cassette. The network seen in the United States as "the mouthpiece of terrorists" is criticized as harshly in militant Islamic circles for giving airtime to Jews, hiring Jews, secretly being Jews, and showing maps that include Israel, a place positively brimming with Jews.
But if they aren’t taken seriously by militants, the network worries the U.S. administration and military take them far too seriously. Their offices have been accidentally bombed twice by the United States military, first Kabul in 2001 and then Baghdad in 2003.
The Daily Mirror reported in November that an April 2004 meeting at the White House between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair featured Bush mentioning the idea of bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar. This meeting in question supposedly took place during fighting in Fallujah in 2004, when Al-Jazeera cameramen slanted their coverage to create the impression that the U.S. was targeting women and children.
Al-Jazeera professes to be upset by the idea they may have been targets, but they know getting sideways with American foreign policy is a reliable path to credibility with the Arab street. Besides, if the President felt inclined to swipe at the network, a simple "Al-Jazeera’s doing a heckuva job" would have them diving under their desks at all of their 30 bureaus worldwide.
The network also knows how to protect its hostage video franchise. Sensing administration, military or public sentiment moving against them, they have taken steps to soften their impact, refusing to show guns pointed at hostages, and making the demands of the terrorists inaudible. And, in fairness, they have never broadcast a hostage beheading.
The American public will consume enemy propaganda even in wartime, just as long as it is deemed newsworthy and isn’t grisly. Savvy to advertising tricks, we mistakenly believe recognizing a crude manipulation neutralizes its effect.
It is time to treat the broadcasting of hostage videos as a hostile act during time of war. Censorship is not the goal, but a tool — stopping enemy propaganda is the goal. People who feel deprived can still view beheadings and other atrocities on websites run by Islamic radicals.
If we tolerate these morale-sapping hostage videos, one after the other over time, in what sense can we still say we’re serious about denying terrorists a propaganda victory?