Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The murder of journalists puts news media in a quandary

By Edward Wasserman

The murders of the U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by their Islamist captors were trivial horrors in the spiraling calamity that has engulfed Syria and Iraq. Still, to me they were uniquely painful for reasons unrelated to the region's incomparably greater misfortunes: They were the needless deaths of brave and committed professionals, they pointed up the frayed logic of this country's no-ransom policy, and they reminded us of the vulnerability of the corps of freelancers on which our media increasingly rely for news from the world's most desperate places.

As news stories the killings were was not just grim and depressing, they were perplexing too, because they couldn't help but call into question the wisdom and morality of the considerations that define news and dictate how news is presented.

Reports of the deaths were inextricably interwoven with the spectacle that the killers created out of them, and for the news media, it was impossible to report the murders without dealing with the video of their final moments — whether displaying it, suppressing it, alluding to it, or excerpting from it.

This isn't the first time that has happened, but I think the need for media to strike the balance between, on the one hand, judiciously conveying publicly significant information and imagery and, on the other, refusing to serve as a terrorist conduit requires a moral clarity that has been elusive.

I didn't view the video of either killing and don't intend to, for reasons that will be clearer in a moment, but my understanding from those who have is that they don't actually show the beheadings. The screen fades to black as the ostensible executioner, standing alongside their kneeling prisoners, brings out the knife; the images return to show the immediate aftermath.

I mention that apparent fastidiousness to make a point that's important—that these weren't newsreels; the "news" — the slaughter itself — wasn't shown. What was shown was a carefully composed set piece of physical domination and verbal polemic constructed around an offscreen act of cruelty, and it was produced to make a point.

The reluctance of various news media to show the videos — and the decision by Twitter and YouTube to remove the Foley video from their servers, and presumably to bar the Sotloff footage—has been criticized as censorship in some quarters. The reasons given by the two online giants differed: Twitter cited the harrowing nature of the pictures, and said its policy was to defer to protests from family members; YouTube said it would avoid postings from terrorist organizations.

Neither policy is a model of precision, but I'm inclined to be forgiving; these outfits were plainly disgusted by their own inadvertent complicity, and were groping for a way out.

Among journalism commentators, however, the actions reawakened the perennial debate over the proper use of gruesome imagery in news reportage. Is it an indispensable part of truth-telling or a pointless indulgence that borders on the pornographic?

Historical instances that are thought to have brought an invaluable uptick in public understanding — the 1972 picture by Nick Ut of a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl who'd been burned by napalm, or the 1968 Eddy Adams photo of a Viet Cong prisoner being shot in the head — are being cited as arguments for letting the pictures tell the story.

The problem with that argument is that it seems to think the problem with using the Foley or Sotloff video was its violence. But that's not really the issue. Those pictures from Vietnam were the work of photojournalists who were recording news that was happening independently of their presence. The little girl wasn't napalmed so she could be filmed, and the VC suspect wasn't executed because a photographer was on hand.

The videos created by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was entirely different. They weren't photojournalism at all. Each was the staged recording of a pseudo-event, an action that took place solely to be filmed, intended as propaganda of the deed, titled "A Message to America."

It's very likely that neither man would have been killed at all if not for the camera — and the camera was there only because the killers were confident that the video they were making would go viral.

Cutting a man's throat is mere murder; cutting his throat for the camera is an act of terrorism, and its mission of provoking fear and intimidation can be accomplished only if it is seen by others.

That means viewing and sharing the video ratifies the logic of the killers and ensures their act its political redemption.

This country supposedly refuses ransom demands because it doesn't want to encourage further kidnappings. What a pity if at the same time our media are giving terrorists other payoffs, no less important, that they covet.

This column, originally posted Sept. 1 as commentary on James Foley's murder, has been modified to reflect news of journalist Steven Sotloff's death as well.