A Different Take on the Criticisms of AP.–

Frankly, I have been somewhat ambivalent in reading the criticism of the Associated Press (AP) for running photos of the killing of innocent Iraqi civilians by terrorists in Iraq. Much of the discussion has focused on how much of a tip the AP photographer had; if he knew of an assassination attempt before it occurred and went to photograph it rather than stop it, that would be wrong. Other criticism, of the sort that I wanted to comment on, goes to the more general question whether the AP or other MSM should be showing pictures of terrorist acts that the terrorists want shown.

Earlier in the war, the press was criticized for showing American atrocities (e.g., prison torture) and possible atrocities (e.g., the shooting of a wounded militant/terrorist in a mosque), but mostly refusing to show beheadings and other atrocities committed by terrorists. This even goes back to the aftermath of 9/11 when the media fairly quickly stopped showing pictures of people diving from the twin towers, probably to avoid stirring up the public excessively (but perhaps out of concern for families of victims).

In most prior wars, the home country press showed pictures of atrocities committed by the enemy, but downplayed or covered up atrocities committed by the home country. This war is unusual in several respects. First, at some times (though certainly not always), the US press has been more likely to show the home country’s atrocities than the enemy’s. This is somewhat explained by the US press having better access to US actions, both good and bad, but it is still historically very strange.

The other oddity is that the actions that the terrorists want shown are themselves atrocities. Usually, one side in a war would be proud to show its military victories, but ashamed to show its vicious killings of innocent, unarmed civilians. In Iraq, the terrorists want first to frighten, intimidate, and (yes) terrorize decent people who want democracy. Second, they want to recruit and embolden a small cadre of bloodthirsty people who would be attracted toward the cause of people who commit atrocities.

For these two reasons, we have the odd spectacle of terrorists who want their atrocities broadcast around the world, instead of being ashamed by them. The Belmont Club, which quite insightfully first raised questions about the AP, pointed out how the terrorists might be helped:

Although the Eddie Adams photograph [of the execution of Vietcong Captain Bay Lop by South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan] was widely used to illustrate the ‘brutality’ of the Saigon government, the photos taken by the Associated Press are unlikely to reflect badly on the electoral worker’s killers. Press reports highlight the confidence and boldness of the insurgents. “Both of the victims shown in the sequence wore traditional Arab headscarfs. In contrast, the attackers were bareheaded and apparently unafraid to show their faces”, suggesting that ‘collaborators’ must conceal their faces while the Ba’athists stride with impunity through the light of day.

So I can see some reasons for running pictures or video of atrocities committed by Iraqi terrorists and some reasons for not running them. In particular, if the press knew that the atrocity would not have occurred without the press as an audience, that would definitely suggest not covering it. But something like this problem arises in more ordinary situations. Park Dietz once estimated that for every product tampering extensively covered in the press (e.g., the Tylenol scare), there are a couple dozen copycat events, some of them fatal. Something similar has been argued for the press’s covering mass school killings, but I know of no evidence for this.

The only tentative conclusion that I would draw is that it might be somewhat unfair to criticize the MSM both for showing atrocities that terrorists want covered (such as perhaps the AP story) and for not showing the beheading of hostages, which are also atrocities that terrorists want covered. Is the press (even if the US press had no goal other than to help the US war effort) supposed to show terrorist atrocities or not? Which policy actually helps the terrorists or the US war effort? Until the AP story, I got the impression in the blogosphere that most critics of the press thought that the press should be showing terrorist atrocities, even when the terrorists wanted them shown. Now after the AP story, I’m not so sure.

I should add that I am not accusing any particular blogger for being inconsistent (which is why I haven’t linked most of the AP criticisms), both because I have no idea whether any have been inconsistent and because there are some good reasons to distinguish the two sorts of cases. Indeed, most of the AP criticisms, and in particular the brilliant and amazingly perceptive post from the Belmont Club that started all this, have focused on what the AP might have done besides just publicize an event that the terrorists wanted covered.

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