The Sunday Magazine

Are journalists aiding and abetting terrorist propaganda by reporting on ISIS videos? - Michael's essay

From Michael's essay: "ISIS is a master at marketing its murderous products of beheadings, crucifixions, burnings, stonings. They are very good practitioners of the public relations art."
Under the George W. Bush White House, video press releases using actors posing as television journalists were sent to stations in smaller markets. The stations would often run the propaganda videos without any disclaimer to indicate that they came from the White House. (Credit: AP Photo/Evan)

In the mid 1970s, the Frank Church Senate Committee investigating crimes committed by the CIA, discovered that for years the agency had been producing pre-packaged propaganda films made to look like real news footage. The fake news items were then broadcast by smaller television stations across the country. 

A more sophisticated version of the practice was perfected by the George W. Bush White House. Again, video press releases using actors posing as television journalists were sent to stations in smaller markets. The stations, hungry for material and too cheap to pay for the real thing, would often run the propaganda videos without any disclaimer that they came from the White House. To their everlasting credit, the national networks refused to run the reports, recognizing them for what they were; undiluted propaganda. 

The fact that television stood up to the Bush White House became a positive talking point inside journalism. Something profound has changed with the rise of Islamic State and their endless supply of violent videos. Every time ISIS releases another video, television stations, including the CBC, dutifully report the content and show some of the pictures. Our newspapers run photographs of the condemned kneeling in their orange jumpsuits, heads bowed, before their killers.

Whatever else it might be, ISIS is a master at marketing its murderous products of beheadings, crucifixions, burnings, stonings. They are very good practitioners of the public relations art. The purposes of the videos are to terrify and to recruit. Which raises the uncomfortable question for journalists. Are we aiding and abetting the propaganda interests of terrorists? Television and newspaper editors take the question very seriously. They do not, willy nilly, decide to run the videos without considering the impact on audiences. They strive for a delicate and nuanced balance between the public's right to know and questions of good taste and an honest reflection of the facts.

This week in London, journalists at The Guardian argued the pros and cons of publicizing the latest ISIS video. The Guardian has clearly set out rules for publicizing the videos, as does the CBC. The overarching dilemma for me is the question of giving the terrorists exactly what they want -- widespread publicity for their reptilian views.

 In 1985 in a speech to the American Bar Association, Margaret Thatcher warned news media: "We must not play into their hands - we must find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend." She was taking aim at the BBC and its coverage of IRA bombings. And while I can't agree with anything Thatcher ever said or did, in this case she made a good point. News is a human construct. It doesn't exist in nature. The news we read, see, listen to has been decided by journalists and editors. News is what they say it is. How it differs from propaganda is a tricky question. 

The journalist who oversees the standards and quality of CBC journalism is David Studer. I asked him about the ISIS videos as propaganda and not news. His reply: "The point I would make isn't about assisting in propaganda. It's a case of providing a well-informed public, well capable of making considered judgements about what it sees and hears, with information that will be useful in the process of making those judgements about matters of significant interest."

All of which is likely true. But I'm still left with the sinking feeling that somewhere in their grotesque caliphate, the torturers and killers in the videos are smiling.

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