by: Nick Schou
From the bloody snuff films released by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the satirical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo (which led to the Jan. 7 murder of 11 magazine employees by a pair of Al Qaeda sympathizers), American newspapers and television networks are engaging in a heightened public debate over just how far the press should go in depicting graphic or offensive news.
It’s an ironic debate given the radical changes that the traditional news media, particularly print journalism, has undergone in the past several years. A combination of new technology and social media, the decline of paper-based advertising revenue, and shifting generational habits mean that fewer people than ever know or care what news is deemed fit to print by the New York Times or other supposedly agenda-setting media institutions. A 2012 Pew Research poll found that while 48 percent of adults over 65 years old received their news via newspapers, among adults age 18 to 24, that number was only six percent. Seventy-three percent of older Americans, meanwhile, continue to watch TV news as compared to just 29 percent of young adults.
The technology-driven explosion of online media outlets is a far cry from how people consumed news during the Vietnam War, when the editorial boards of three TV networks and a handful of major newspapers and wire services wielded far more influence over how news, especially of a disturbing or controversial content, would be disseminated. As the war became more contentious, television played a vital role in bringing the conflict into American living rooms. In the minds and memories of Americans, for the first time in history, Vietnam thus played out as a series of iconic, incredibly graphic images: a self-immolating monk in Saigon, a South Vietnamese officer summarily executing a restrained Viet Cong guerrilla on the street, heaps of dead villagers in a drainage ditch in My Lai. Reporters were allowed to roam the war zone without restriction; coverage gradually went from uncritical regurgitation of Pentagon press releases to an on-air declaration of deception and stalemate by Walter Cronkite, the nation’s most trusted newsman.
Flash forward to the Iraq War, where print and television reporters—themselves largely complicit in the selling of the myth of Saddam’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction—were embedded with allied forces, thus beholden to the military chain of command, including censors, in terms of what it could cover. Unlike Vietnam, there are no iconic images of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq besides the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue. (A notable exception were the Associated Press’s photos of the burned bodies of slain U.S. contractors being hung from a bridge in Fallujah at the beginning of the anti-U.S. insurgency.) In Vietnam, photos of dead American soldiers zippered up in plastic “body bags” became emblematic of the war’s high cost; with Iraq and Afghanistan, Pentagon censors refused to allow news photographers to snap shots of flag-draped coffins being unloaded from cargo planes returning from the war’s killing fields.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has been in a permanent state of war, with American forces fighting ground battles in two countries, as well as conducting covert operations involving Special Forces in the Horn of Africa, trans-Sahara, the Central African Republic, and the Philippines, to name a few. Our government has dropped bombs, fired missiles and conducted drone attacks on at least seven countries from Yemen to Pakistan. Because it is too dangerous for American journalists to operate in most of the countries, the U.S. public has been largely shielded from any sense of the carnage wrought in its name. Not to mention, too expensive: According to a 2011 study by the American Journalism Review, foreign coverage in daily newspapers over the past 25 years has fallen by 53 percent.
Instead, most of the coverage of the ongoing conflict of our day—and thus the graphic and disturbing content that goes along with it—is being consumed via online websites like Vice News, Gawker, and BuzzFeed, as well as social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google. These outlets are themselves struggling to come up with a coherent way of drawing the limits on news sanitization, particularly in the wake of a series of increasingly brutal execution videos posted online by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS. According to a Sept. 3, 2014 report by the AP, Google specifically prohibits any content designed to “shock or disgust” or which had been posted by a group identified as a terrorist organization.
Twitter, meanwhile, instituted a new policy allowing relatives of deceased individuals to request that images of their loved ones be deleted. “We have been and are actively suspending accounts as we discover them related to this graphic imagery,” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said in an official statement. But often these companies found that just as soon as offensive videos or images were scrubbed from the Internet, the same material would reappear from a new source. U.S. television networks have meanwhile limited their coverage to short clips of the hostages pleading for their lives, as well as limited remarks by the masked ISIS executioner dubbed “Jihadi John” and since revealed as Mohammed Emwazi, who is presumed to have carried out all the off-screen beheadings. (Full clips of the videos were consigned to the fringes of the Internet with the notable exception of Gawker, which provided its readers with a link.)
Almost without exception, U.S. newspapers published photographs of the kneeling victims being taunted by the knife-wielding captor, although the New York Post published a full-size front-page photo of Jihadi John grimly wielding a knife to the throat of the captured American freelance journalist James Foley, which ran with the banner headline “SAVAGES!” Reaction to the Post’s front cover in the U.S. media was almost universally negative.
Understanding the media’s role
The traditional news media’s role in sanitizing the news grew even more obvious on Feb. 3 when ISIS released a 22-minute video documenting the elaborately staged, slow-motion immolation of a caged Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh. Although most networks and newspapers stuck to their established policies on graphic content—releasing photos of Kasasbeh in the cage only before the flames had reached him—the unbridled evil of the act itself led to some surprising reactions, particularly at Fox News.
During the network’s initial coverage of the immolation, anchor Shepard Smith provided viewers with a blow-by-blow narration of the video. But just as Smith saved his audience from the harrowing footage, Fox News changed its mind and released the entire 22-minute video online. “After careful consideration, we decided that giving readers of FoxNews.com the option to see for themselves the barbarity of ISIS outweighed legitimate concerns about the graphic nature of the video,” according to John Moody, Fox News’s executive vice president.
Among competing media outlets, the move was criticized for not only violating decency standards, but essentially furthering the propaganda and recruitment efforts of ISIS. Some of the criticism even came from within Fox. “I just have a concern that we are helping spread the fear that ISIS so badly wants to spread,” said Howard Kurtz, the network’s media critic.
However, Erik Wemple, Washington Post’s chief media blogger, noted that when it posted the video, Fox’s website received more online traffic in one day than it had in a month. “The figures raise a question,” Wemple said. “Are the U.S. media’s decency standards protecting people from things they actually want to see?
A related case in point occurred in the wake of the Jan. 7 massacre of several journalists at the satirical French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, who were killed in response to a controversial cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad. In the days after the Paris massacre, many newspapers chose to run the cartoons, most notably the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the New York Post. However, several major television networks and print news organizations including CNN, ABC News, Associated Press and New York Times refused to publish the cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed that allegedly prompted the murders. For its part, AP explained its policy by stating that it “tries hard not to be a conveyor belt for images and actions aimed at mocking or provoking people on the basis of religion, race, or sexual orientation. We did not run the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad in 2005, or the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the same type.”
In a Jan. 18 interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, Gerard Biard, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief, thrashed the U.S. media for its refusal to run the cartoons. “This cartoon is not just a little figure,” he said. “It’s a symbol. It’s the symbol of freedom of speech, of freedom of religion, of democracy and secularism…When they refuse to publish this cartoon, when they blur it out, when they decline to publish it, they blur out democracy.” In a Jan. 8 post on his public Facebook account, USC Annenberg School of Journalism Professor Marc Cooper also took the New York Times to task.
“Exactly how many people have to be shot in cold blood before your paper rules that you can show us what provoked the killers,” Cooper asked. “Apparently 23 shot including 11 dead is not enough. What absolute cowardice. Baquet, who justified his decision by stating the paper did not wish to offend Muslims and also wished to protect its employees overseas, responded to Cooper’s post by calling him an “asshole.”
In an interview with E&P, Cooper said the Times’ refusal to publish the cartoon spoke volumes about the increasing irrelevance of the “elite U.S. media” when it comes to deciding what information or content news consumers should access.
“I thought it was outrageous that 23 people could be shot, and half of them could die in a cold blooded massacre, and the paper of record was not willing to show us what caused it out of political correctness,” Cooper said. “The joke is on the New York Times because they don’t seem to understand their role in the world any longer. As Dean Baquet was meditating over this issue, the cartoons were being read everywhere.”
Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, echoed Cooper’s concerns about political correctness in a Jan. 14 editorial, although she quibbled with any notion that Baquet’s decision showed lack of courage. “The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive,” she said. “And it has, undoubtedly, significant news value. With Charlie Hebdo’s expanded press run of millions of copies for this post-attack edition, and a great deal of global coverage the image is being seen, judged and commented on all over the world. Times readers should not have had to go elsewhere to find it.”
Despite the refusal of the Times and other prominent papers to publish the cartoons, Cooper doesn’t think the U.S. media is becoming more sanitized. “Fortunately there are so many more outlets that are not sanitized that they make up for the ones that have always been sanitized and continue to be sanitized,” he said. “The New York Times isn’t going to sink because of this. But it decided to make itself that much less relevant by abdicating its responsibility. The glaring chasm between the Times and other media outlets that are sanitized, and those that are not, grows wider every day.”
Nick Schou is an award-winning investigative journalist with the OC Weekly (Costa Mesa, Calif.)