Smith criticism fuels debate on media's role in terrorism

After the Pentagon's nominee to direct public affairs voices his concerns, many question whether media aid terrorists by airing their messages.

After the Pentagon's nominee to direct public affairs voices his concerns, many question whether media aid terrorists by airing their messages.

When Dorrance Smith accused US media outlets of aiding and abetting terrorism, he touched a nerve in the media and politics.

In an April Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, the man now nominated as the next head of Pentagon public affairs argued that broadcast news outlets support the terrorist cause by providing a forum for its message.

Smith, to be certain, is not the first to use this line of reasoning. But his nomination has led some to ask whether the article would make him a liability as the department's chief spokesman.

In the Op-Ed, Smith takes a swipe at Al-Jazeera, accusing the Arab news network, which will launch an English channel early next year, of having a "working arrangement [with terrorist organizations] that extends beyond a modus vivendi." And when US networks air Al-Jazeera's footage, Smith argues, they are giving terrorist groups an even larger platform - which is what they want and need.

"Video aired by Al-Jazeera ends up on these networks, sometimes within minutes," Smith writes. "The terrorists are aware of this access and use it ... to further their aims. They want to reach the American audience and influence public opinion."

He ultimately calls upon US media outlets to join the fight on terrorism and reject videos shot by terrorists.

The remarks found at least one critic in Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), who told reporters he would oppose Smith's nomination because characterizing US media as "aiders and abettors of the terrorists ... is so far over the top, it's unacceptable."

Suzanne Spaulding, MD at The Harbour Group and former executive director of the National Commission on Terrorism, notes that policy advisers have been concerned for decades about the effects of publicizing terrorist acts. "You have to be careful not to reward the terrorists by giving them what they want," she says, but adds that journalists must decide on a case-by-case basis whether to air footage from these groups.

She cites, for example, the US government's recent decision to release a letter (the authenticity of which has since been questioned) from an al-Qaeda leader to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, another force in the terrorist organization. The administration, she notes, has to consider whether such correspondence might contain hidden messages before it releases it to the public.

"I don't think there should be a blanket rule" about when to run material created by such groups, Spaulding says. "Clearly the US administration doesn't think so either."

Brigitte Nacos, a Columbia University professor whose research has focused on the intersection between terrorism and the media, disputes Smith's contentions about Al-Jazeera.

She notes that, while Al-Jazeera receives more terrorist-created video than any other network, there is no formal arrangement between the news station and terror groups. "Media and terrorism feed off each other; they basically give each other what they need without being formally and wittingly in bed," she says. "I do think terrorism, by and large - and even before 9/11 - is over-reported. I've always said that the media must fully inform citizens. The question is, how and how much?"

She also doesn't support efforts to shut down Al-Jazeera, which has been kicked out of Iraq. "We receive information from Al-Jazeera we might not [otherwise] get," she says.
Officials at Al-Jazeera, contacted through the network's PR agency, Brown Lloyd James, were not immediately available for comment.

Responsible coverage

Darrell Hayes, a communications professor at American University and former Pentagon spokesman, empathizes with the government's security concerns. And he points to the "cultivation theory," which suggests that media can embolden would-be terrorist recruits with coverage that gives the sense that terrorism is pervasive.

"Many other people have attacked the media for the same thing," he says. "The terrorists have an agenda. They want to cloak themselves in victimhood; they want to promote this great cause. There's always some sensitivity about these sorts of issues and concerns."

A few US television news networks declined comment or did not immediately return phone calls, but at least one source among them suggests that news directors do have policies in place that weigh the ethical considerations of running terrorist-created footage.

Spaulding characterizes US media coverage as responsible - networks don't want to be mouthpieces for terror groups any more than they do for the administration.

Hayes says Smith's Op-Ed "misses the point of the media."

"They see themselves as crusaders; they see themselves as watchdogs of society," he says. "[The Op-Ed] subtly implies that the media [are] not 'patriotic.'" Like other communications experts interviewed, Hayes suggests that the media, not the government, are responsible for making sure news coverage is responsible.

It's the government's role, he notes, not to censor the media, but to get its own message out.
Bill Smullen, director of the National Security Studies program and professor of public relations at Syracuse University, shares that view, but suggests that the government hasn't been very good at telling its story.

Smullen recently helped prepare a report for the State Department on the US' image abroad. "A lot of what we discovered is that people are angry not at America but American policies," he says. "What we've got to have is a [greater] commitment to distributing information that is not only better but also more honest. We know how to do it, but we're not doing it as effectively as we should."

In fact, he says that he would encourage American officials to appear on Al-Jazeera and other Arab media outlets to offer a countermessage.

Smullen calls Smith's Wall Street Journal Op-Ed "a classic case of misplaced aggression." But he notes that Congress should focus on more fundamental questions about how the Pentagon's next public affairs director will deliver the US' message.

"[Smith] is going to be in a position to influence what America broadcasts," Smullen says. "When a story runs on Al-Jazeera, then we've got to do the best job we know how to tell a story in a more effective, more robust way. If we don't, we're going to get drowned out by a negative viewpoint."

But Hayes is sensitive to some of the criticism that's been raised. Smith, he notes, will be weaving the Pentagon's "cultural narrative," and the media will cast his opinions as the administration's viewpoint.

Still, he notes that Smith is not alone in Washington. "His views are a little more extreme [than many government officials'], but they speak to a greater frustration," he says.

Minimal media impact

Lowndes "Rick" Stephens, a journalism professor at the University of South Carolina, notes that Smith - with his background in TV news and extensive experience covering stories from the Middle East - is certainly qualified to make the argument he does. But Stephens does question whether shaping the way the media cover terrorism is in the purview of the Pentagon's lead spokesman.

"While Mr. Smith may believe that the role of our government in fighting the war on terrorism should be to censor media reports that fail to support American foreign policy goals, I would make public diplomacy efforts the centerpiece of what our government does to dampen Arab rage and improve our relations in the Arab world," he says via e-mail.

Nacos notes that, even if news directors accepted Smith's call to action, the move would have minimal impact on the ability of terrorist groups to recruit new members. Terrorist leaders, she says, are already looking for new ways to promote their messages, hiring communications specialists and leveraging the web.

"Terrorists are very shrewd in using the internet," she says. "They are very good at reporting on their own events without using the traditional media. They become sources and reporters at the same time."

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