OPINION: Censored press is not a solution to terrorism

Intentionally scaling back media coverage of terrorism is a bad idea

What if I said I agree with what Secretary of State John Kerry said about the press covering acts of terrorism?

Certainly I’d be betraying some sort of journalistic credo in allowing that, yes, in a way, the press could maybe reduce the number of imitators by not covering terrorist attacks.

In essence, it’s true.

Kerry’s actual words (a transcript is available online through the U.S. Dept. of State) were: “Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn’t cover it quite as much. People wouldn’t know what’s going on.”

While our fact-based reporting as journalists may lead many of the impacted population to see the perpetrator as infamous, it’s believable that terrorist organizations — well known as having an effective recruiting network of professional-quality propaganda — use that coverage and flip the message making the perpetrator famous among its supporters.

If all newspapers and other media stepped back from the coverage, terrorist organizations no longer would have that tool.

The coverage also can lead to increased fear: If you don’t know it’s happening, you won’t fear it. An ostrich with its head in the sand, a child at night hiding under the blankets. I get what Kerry was saying.

That one line of a more than 4,300-word speech made headlines and has been widely shared on the Internet.

Snopes.com (a fact checking website) did a fine job of explaining that the one line is part of a larger speech. In that speech, Kerry also stated the benefits of democracy: “There may be no single answer to the question of why somebody becomes a terrorist – there are a lot of reasons. But make no mistake, democracy still provides the most resilient and the most reliable platform that we have for preventing and responding to violent extremism. Why? Because when individuals can address their grievances, when you have an opportunity to come together and speak and not fear that you’re going to go to jail, when you have an ability to be able to talk and argue and fight over an issue, build consensus about facts – that’s the way that civil society is able to flourish: when people can freely participate in public debate and are less vulnerable to being subverted by lies, by distortions, by a fake presentation of a peaceful religion, Islam.”

Kerry bobs and weaves throughout the speech, which was delivered in Dhaka, Bangladesh on Aug. 29. His trip to Dhaka followed a terror attack there in July which killed 21 people. There are many comments of varying topics in Kerry’s speech.

And I understand the need for the United States to strengthen its support of a nation faced with terrorism by sending the Secretary of State.

But while I agree with Kerry that the press not covering terrorism may help to scale back terrorism in some small way, what would be lost is far more important.

When our newspaper group was faced with a suspected terrorist in rural Montesano, the question was never “Will our coverage encourage more terrorists?” The question was: “What information can we get out to our community to let them know what is happening?”

I shop at the grocery store. I shop at the gas station where the accused terrorist was attempting to spread his rhetoric. I have a family here. We wanted answers like everybody else. The thought process was: “There’s a terrorist in our community — Who? OK, are we in danger? Were we in danger? Are there any more? How did this happen here? Is it over? Where’s the evidence?” That’s in no particular order.

Not only do we, as journalists, put it upon ourselves to report the most important news of our communities, we’re also supported by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

I’ve heard stories from World War II claiming the British media withheld coverage of German attacks on cities in order to make the Germans believe they missed the mainland. As a person who likes to learn about history, that’s fascinating. As a journalist, it’s strange and somewhat troubling.

The next paragraph of Kerry’s speech hits closer to the reality of the situation: “There may be no single answer to the question of why somebody becomes a terrorist – there are a lot of reasons.”

I wholeheartedly agree with that as well.

If we had an isolationist policy in our government (meaning, in the most lax definition, that we worry about what’s happening at home and only at home), we could maybe eliminate some terrorism.

If we hadn’t spent decades involved in the affairs of the Middle East and the countries in the northern African continent, maybe we wouldn’t be dealing with so much terrorism. That includes the Gulf War, Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, and enforcing the former no-fly zone, as well as diplomatically pushing to enforce sanctions against Iran. And those are events just from within my cognizant lifetime.

If we didn’t give airtime to politicians and comedians and the general man-on-the-street interviewee who embody what the extremists claim — namely anti-Muslim and racist rhetoric —maybe we wouldn’t be dealing with so much terrorism.

But like limiting what the press covers (even self-censorship is censorship), what we would lose is much worse that what would be gained.

In working with other nations, we ensure mutual safety and aid. We should not turn a blind eye to the complications of politics in the Middle East. And while it’s disgusting that people can be openly ignorant about other cultures, the First Amendment protects that in almost the same way it protects the press.

So be sane.

And don’t treat the press as a scapegoat.

If we don’t uphold our standards as a nation and if we deny the freedom of press to cover for our ineffective national security efforts, terrorists will get a victory.

I’m already tired of taking my shoes off at the airport — don’t take away my freedom of press.