Garry Hamilton

Under the Gun

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How TV news delivers a captive audience to terrorists

For 17 days during the TWA hijacking in beirut last June, terrorists took over the airwaves as the networks battled each other for the inside story. In the months that followed, American networks came under fire for giving up their editorial control in exchange for drama. Meanwhile, networks that relied heavily on the American footage, including those in Canada, were able to avoid the heat. George Bain, who writesMaclean’s “Media Watch,” says this troubles him. “It’s the handling of the story by American networks that everyone talks about,” he says. “Even if we had nobody in Beirut at the time, we’d still pick up the tape from ABC, NBC or whoever had the best stuff. I don’t think Canadian networks can fob off the problem by saying, ‘It’s an American problem.'”

It indeed has become a big American problem. Competition and modern technology have become dangerous partners in the broadcasting of international political terrorism. Terrorists seek a plat-form for their causes and demands, and television gives them that platform-on a global scale. Adds Bain: “It’s a triumph for the terrorists when they are able to command the attention of the major networks that feed the world. The more terrorism succeeds, and I think publicity helps it to succeed, the more of your citizens you’re putting in jeopardy. You’re giving terrorists incentive to do it again.”

By giving a platform to terrorists, television journalists are giving away their editorial control. Handcuffed by the violence, they are handing over their microphones and saying, “Speak to the world.”

And they do. During the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany, Arab terrorists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes. This action and the fact that all eyes were on Munich was no coincidence. Today, terrorists no longer have to go where the cameras are. The cameras will come to them. That was the case on June 14 when hundreds of journalists flocked to the Middle East after Shi’ite gunmen hijacked TWA Flight 847, demanding Israel free 766 Lebanese prisoners. In their own backyard, the terrorists effectively controlled the situation. Information was hard to come by and even harder to confirm. But this only added to the competition as the U.S. networks sacrificed more and more of their editorial control in order to fill the evening newscast. The networks, for example, aired a Visnews tape even after the Shi’ites had seized and deleted the parts they didn’t endorse.

There appeared to be no limit to how far the U.S. networks would go to get a story. Ann Medina, CBC’s correspondent in Beirut at the time, was amazed at what went on. Recalls Medina: “I was a witness to one of the network people really doing a con job on one of the hostages. He was saying, ‘Stick with us, we’ll phone your family for you.’ In this type of situation, a letter or a call home is much more valuable than money.”

Viewers got a chance to see this competition in action on the sixth day of the crisis. Members of the Amal militia, the Lebanese ruling faction at the time, actually held a press conference for the media to meet five of the hostages. When these hostages were first brought out, the approximately 150 journalists present became so unruly that the Amal threatened to cancel the conference. After a 20-minute delay, the journalists promised to play by the Amal rules and the conference continued. That evening, the event was given extensive coverage. It was the first chance to see that some of the hostages were still alive, but the networks kept the cameras rolling as the hostages repeated the demands of the hijackers. The networks said later that the terrorists were not getting equal airtime. But as Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter wrote, “As the hostages increasingly conveyed the terrorists’ message the Amal didn’t need its own air time.” For almost two weeks, the same hostages were repeatedly brought before the cameras by the Amal. What made the situation worse was the fact the networks, whenever it was possible, broadcast these press conferences live.

The overexuberance of the U.S. networks extended far beyond the broadcasting of terrorist propaganda. As the crisis dragged on, the networks clearly crossed the line between covering the story and becoming part of it. ABC’s David Hartman, anchorman for Good Morning America, played the part of mediator during an interview when he asked Amal leader Nabih Berri, “Any final words to President Reagan this morning?” NBC and ABC were both criticized for broadcasting the movements of Delta Force, the U.S. anti-terrorist commando team, only hours after the hijacking began. Besides this possible threat to American contingency plans, the constant interviews with hostages acted as an emotional plea to U.S. and Israeli officials to do something quickly to end the crisis. In one interview, Berri himself told Americans they should write their president to seek the release of the 766 Shi’ite prisoners in Israel. But perhaps the most ridiculous example of how far competition drove U.S. journalists was ABC’s correspondent Charles Glass’ interview with John Testrake, the captain of the hijacked plane. As Testrake leaned out of his cockpit window, a gun held to his head, Glass inquired: “Captain, many people in America are calling for some kind of a rescue operation or some kind of retaliation. Do you have any thoughts on that?” One has to wonder what Glass, a veteran Middle East correspondent, expected the pilot to say or, worse, what he hoped he would say. Glass later admitted he was unprepared for the interview. But that didn’t stop ABC from getting the exclusive.

By keeping the cameras rolling whenever the Shi’ites spoke or acted, the real news became lost in the drama and the editorial control was further surrendered. It was, as former president of CBS News Fred Friendly put it, “like handing over the front page to one side and saying, ‘Fill in the headline.'” For their part, the Shi’ites even went so far as to post a notice in one of the hotels that all film footage should be pooled.

Enter the Canadian networks. With only a handful of reporters in Beirut at the time, Canadian television news was filled with pooled footage, much of it American. And like their counterparts to the south, Canadian network executives failed to separate the news from the drama. They, too, were held hostage by the terrorists.

On one Global newscast, three Amal officials demanded that the U.S. remove its navy aircraft carrier from the waters outside Beirut. If they didn’t, the officials said they could do nothing about getting the hostages freed. It was like the Amal Broadcasting Corporation. When the Amal spoke, the cameras rolled. Global, which relied totally on foreign footage for its reports, also aired an interview with Testrake (gun to his head) and possibly served to generate sympathy for the Shi’ite cause by’ calling Israel’s roundup of prisoners a “so-called iron-fist sweep through Lebanon.”

During the 17-day ordeal, Canadian networks repeatedly showed film of the same few hostages making the same few demands-that Israel free the prisoners and that the U.S. avoid any rescue attempt. The terrorists’ message was coming through as loud and clear on Canadian television as it was on U.S. television. On CBC’s The National, hostage spokesman Allyn Conwell repeated substantially the same message on five separate nights.

“You have to report it in context,” says David Bazay, executive producer of The National. “We know they’re going in there seeking some type of a platform. Our job is to reflect reality and report the news-what’s going on.”

During that chaotic first press conference, CBC did not do a very good job of reflecting reality. The footage of the conference showed a group of hostages who appeared to be more frightened by the unruly mob of reporters than they were by their captors. When things settled down, Conwell, clean shaven and wearing a neatly pressed Ocean Pacific T-shirt, calmly and with apparent sincerity, urged Israel to free the prisoners. He was sitting at a table neatly covered in white linen and plates of sliced cake. Reality, in this case, had been distorted. Nowhere in the newscast did the CBC try to cut through the guise of civility of the conference.

As for putting it into context, the CBC missed the mark again. Said anchorman Peter Mansbridge in his lead: “The hostages did manage to get their message across. They said the 40 Americans are being well-treated by their Shi’ite Muslem captors. They again warned Ronald Reagan not to try and rescue them. And they asked Israel to free the 766 prisoners so that they, the hostages, could go home.” Again, it wasn’t the hostages’ message but the terrorists’. And almost forgotten were the Americans who hadn’t been well-treated, including Robert Stethem, the murdered hostage who was buried that same day.

Later in the week, after Barbara Frum chatted with Nabih Berri on The Journal and reporter Paul Workman announced that Delta Force was on its way, CBC went so far as to air, on two occasions, a videotape made by the terrorists. The film wasn’t very dramatic; two men in a room with little light. “How do you feel?” asked a member of the Shi’ite militia. “I feel good,” replied the hostage.

“People have to judge,” argues The National‘s Bazay. “We’re giving people information. Based on that information, they have to judge.”

A former correspondent who has seen terrorism first hand, Bazay doesn’t believe the CBC acted irresponsibly last June. But the truth is, following the wild press conference, Shi’ites were parading the streets of Beirut over what they considered a major propaganda coup. CBC’s own John Scully was there to report it.

Bazay does admit there is a problem to be dealt with. “There is a gun at the media’s head, I suppose,” he says. “The real question is not that they’re holding a gun to the heads of the hostages, but that they’re pointing it at the media. They’re saying, `You guys cover this.’ And we do.”

None of the Canadian networks have any written guidelines specifically dealing with the coverage of terrorism. But this could change. “I think there is a need for guidelines,” adds Bazay. “We’re working on some here. We need to make sure that we do not become part of the event, that we’re not taken over by the terrorists, spewing out raw propaganda.”

Internal guidelines, however, are limited by the instincts of competition. One network is not going to impose restrictions on itself while its competitors continue to report everything. It comes down to drama, once again, and drama sells.

“Competition in the media is so incredible it does cause people to do things they wouldn’t normally do,” says Wendy Dey, executive producer of Global’s World Report. “Let’s face it, news coverage can be very dramatic and you want to make it dramatic on the air. That’s just the natural given thing when you’re in the news media. You have to balance that with being responsible.” Like Bazay, Dey recognizes that there is a problem. “I really think that the media have recognized, in the last two years, how much of a part they are playing in terrorism events. I’m saying-rather optimistically-that the media realize the dangers involved and that some members of the media are becoming aware that they can get caught up in and directly affect the outcome of a terrorist event. I think that in a little bit of time you’ll see everybody saying, ‘I don’t want ‘ to get directly involved. Let’s just do our job and report it.’ I definitely think that if the senior news executives got together and decided what was responsible, most media outlets would abide by certain guidelines. But it hasn’t been done yet. Who would initiate it? Somebody who felt really strong about it.”

But herein lies the catch. Not all of the top network executives would want to get together. Some don’t even think there’s a problem.

“I think this media and terrorism thing can be excessively exaggerated,” says Mark Starowicz, executive producer of The Journal. “I don’t think the media causes terrorism. I don’t agree with that at all. We’ve got nothing to complain about here in Canada. What we’ve got is a pretty damned responsible press. This attempt to import American hysteria into Canada, just so we can feel like grown-up journalists, is really nonsense.” Adds Tim Kotcheff, CTV National News executive producer: “I never forget about my responsibilities. In fact, they’re heightened during these types of situations.”

Bain, for one, is not reassured by such pronouncements. “That attitude doesn’t surprise me at all. Television is so chronically self-satisfied in this country. At some point journalists will have to take a broader look at this thing. Even when it’s not their own coverage Canadian networks are buying the most dramatic stuff from the American networks, so you can’t divorce yourself from it completely.”

Walter Stewart, former editor of Today magazine and now director of the School of Journalism at King’s College in Halifax, shares Bain’s concern. “It’s not just an American problem,” he says. “It’s a worldwide problem. In print, you can give the reader background. When you’re on TV, you simply turn the cameras on a subject and you become his captive. Television, apparently, is saying there are no rules when it comes to covering terrorism. There’s a very real danger in journalists saying they’re neutral. If television journalists don’t take the responsibility to set up some rules, then sure as hell someone else will do it. The time is now due, if not overdue, for TV executives to sit down and work something out.”

By “someone else” Stewart means the government. In the 1970s, governments in Italy and West Germany were forced to initiate restrictive legislation to deal with terrorism. And in Britain, the government and media made a voluntary agreement on guidelines for coverage of terrorism.

Recently, hardline politicians in the U.S. have been calling for government intervention in order to control the coverage of terrorism. In a country where the word freedom is sacred, this will likely never happen. But the fact it has come to this extreme may be a warning signal for journalists throughout the Western world to reassess how they’re covering the news.


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