Carbombs & Cameras: The Need for Responsible Media Coverage of Terrorism

By Van Atta, Dale | Harvard International Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Carbombs & Cameras: The Need for Responsible Media Coverage of Terrorism


Van Atta, Dale, Harvard International Review


DALE VAN ATTA is a nationally syndicated columnist (with Jack Anderson) and is a Reader's Digest Contributing Editor.

He has reported on national security and terrorism for two decades.

In late May, an exiled Saudi multimillionaire who has since become the eminence grise of modern terrorism did what came naturally: he called a press conference. Osama bin Laden, then considered by the US State Department "one of the most significant sponsors of Islamic terrorist groups worldwide," outlined the objectives of a new group he had formed in concert with previously competing Egyptian terrorist leaders and others, called the

International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders. As the "press conference" in Khost, Afghanistan wound up, bin Laden observed that the Americans were "very easy targets." He told the journalists, "You will see the results of this in a very short time."

Two days later, the State Department issued a special advisory warning Americans that "some type of terrorist action could be mounted within the next several weeks."

Two months later, on August 7, near-simultaneous car-bomb explosions next to the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 263 people, including 12 Americans, and injured more than 5,000. On August 20, after launching simultaneous cruise missile attacks on bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan and an alleged chemical-agent production plant in Sudan, his former place of refuge, US President Bill Clinton blamed bin Laden for the East Africa bombings in a nationally televised address.

Bin Laden is certainly now the most famous and wanted terrorist in the world. In fact, had it been possible for Osama bin Laden to call another press conference in Khost after those events, hundreds of journalists from dozens of countries would have attended. Key television networks would probably have carried bin Laden's pronouncements live and unedited, giving the unrepentant murderer one of the largest television audiences in history for his fanatical phlegm. And then there would be the round of denunciations about how the media midwived this monster, and how they should be more responsible.

Indeed.

The Media Megaphone

It is in the nature of most terrorists--much like their first cousins, serial murderers--to crave publicity. Neither can achieve their objective without it. The primary purpose is to create a sensational event that affects entire populations, and this is best achieved through the media. The definition of terrorism in US law inherently recognizes this: "[Terrorism] means premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets [including unarmed and off-duty soldiers] by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience" [emphasis added].

Expert Brian Jenkins has stated, "Terrorism is aimed at the people watching, not at the actual victims." For terrorists, the innocent victims of their criminal acts are often tragically incidental; the identity of their victims is a secondary consideration. In fact, media-savvy terrorists are mindful of press deadlines for their news releases. They publish communiques, hold clandestine press conferences, provide videotapes for image-hungry television networks, and grant exclusive interviews to selected journalists.

Osama bin Laden followed this terrorist pattern to the letter. In May 1996, bin Laden was deported from Sudan following US and Saudi Arabian pressure. Angered, he granted Time magazine an exclusive interview before he left Khartoum in order to send a message to the US government. "In our religion, there is a special place in the hereafter for those who participate in jihad," he said.

Last February, bin Laden released to the press a new fatwa, or religious edict, calling on Muslims everywhere to murder Americans wherever they were found. …

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