PICTURE A WARM and sunny day, not in Athens or Cairo, but in Washington. The Israeli prime minister is in town and is scheduled to meet the president.
At 11 a.m., the leader of an obscure Muslim sect and several accomplices armed with guns and machetes storm the headquarters of B'nai B'rith. Three other members of the group seize the city's Islamic Center and two more fanatics invade City Hall, killing a radio reporter in the process. Altogether, the terrorists take 134 hostages in three buildings by gunpoint, force them to the floor and threaten to kill them unless their demands are met.
The news media, as one might expect, descend on the scene en masse. Live television pictures carrying the group's warnings and demands soon go forth over the airwaves. One hundred and thirty-four lives hang in the balance, as reporters compete to get exclusive interviews with the terrorists.
This crisis actually happened, on March 9, 1977, when the Hanafi Muslims staged a terrorist attack on the very day Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was meeting with President Jimmy Carter. Happily, it ended with the surrender of the terrorists and no further loss of life.
The Hanafi incident illustrated a troubling fact about modern terrorism: It requires an audience.
The terrorist has to communicate his own ruthlessness -- his "stop-at-nothing" mentality -- in order to achieve his goals. Media coverage is essential to his purpose.
If terrorism is a form of warfare, as many observers now believe, it is a form in which media exposure is a powerful weapon.
As terrorism increases, we in the news media are being encouraged to restrict our coverage of terrorist actions. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, for example, has proclaimed: "We must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend." Many people, including some reporters in the United States, share her view. Most of these observers call for voluntary restraint by the media in covering terrorist actions. But some go so far as to sanction government control -- censorship, in fact -- should the media fail to respond.
I disagree. I am against any government-imposed restrictions on the free flow of information about terrorist acts. Instead, I am in favor of as full and complete coverage of terrorism by the media as is possible. Here are my reasons:
Terrorist acts are impossible to ignore. They are simply too big a story to pass unobserved. If the media did not report them, rumor would abound. And rumors can do much to enflame and worsen a crisis.
There is no compelling evidence that terrorist attacks would cease if the media stopped covering them. On the contrary, terrorism specialists I have consulted believe the terrorists would only increase the number, scope and intensity of their attacks if we tried to ignore them.
Our citizens have a right to know what the government is doing to resolve crises and curb terrorist attacks. Some of the proposed solutions raise disturbing questions about how and when the United States should use military force.
In covering terrorism, however, we must also recognize that we face very real and exceedingly complex challenges. There are limits to what the media can and should do. Three critical issues, in particular, must be addressed. All touch the central question of how the press can minimize its role as a participant in the crisis and maximize its role as a provider of information.
Responsible behavior. The first issue involves knowing how to gather and reveal information without making things worse, without endangering the lives of hostages or jeopardizing national security. One television news executive bluntly explained to me: "Errors that threaten loss of life are permanent; others are temporary. If we have to make mistakes, we want to make the temporary kind."
In the early days of covering urban violence and the first terrorist attacks, the media would descend on the scene -- lights ablaze and cameras rolling -- in hot pursuit of the news. Sometimes we didn't know what could put lives at risk. And we were often less than cooperative with the police attempting to resolve the crisis.
During the Hanafi Muslim attack that I described earlier there were live television reports that the police were storming a building when, in fact, they were merely bringing in food. Some reporters called in on public phone lines to interview the terrorists inside the building. One interview rekindled the rage of the terrorist leader, who had been on the point of surrender.
These potential disasters led to discussions between the police and the media, and to a more professional approach and mutual trust on both sides. For example, most authorities now know that at the beginning of a crisis, it is best to establish a central point where reliable information can be disseminated quickly and efficiently. And the media, knowing that the authorities intend to help them obtain the information they need, are much more willing to cooperate.
I want to emphasize that the media are willing to -- and do -- withhold information that is likely to endanger human life or jeopardize national security. During the American embassy crisis in Iran, for example, one of our Newsweek reporters became aware that six Americans known to have been in the embassy were not being held by the Iranians. He concluded that these men must have escaped to the Swedish or Canadian embassies. This in fact had occurred. However, we (and some others who also knew) did not report the information because we knew it would put lives in jeopardy. Similarly, when a group of Lebanese Shiites hijacked TWA Flight 847 with 153 hostages aboard last year, the media learned -- but did not report -- that one hostage was a member of the U.S. National Security Agency.
Tragically, however, we in the media have made mistakes. You may recall that in April 1983, some 60 people were killed in a bomb attack on the U.S. embassy in Beirut. At the time, there was coded radio traffic between Syria, where the operation was being run, and Iran, which was supporting it. Alas, one television network and a newspaper columnist reported that the U.S. government had intercepted the traffic. Shortly thereafter the traffic ceased. This undermined efforts to capture the terrorist leaders and eliminated a source of information about future attacks. Five months later, apparently the same terrorists struck again at the Marine barracks in Beirut; 241 servicemen were killed.
This kind of result, albeit unintentional, points up the necessity for full cooperation wherever possible between the media and the authorities. When the media obtains especially sensitive information, we are willing to tell the authorities what we have learned and what we plan to report. And while reserving the right to make the final decision ourselves, we are anxious to listen to arguments about why information should not be aired.
The danger of manipulation. A second challenge facing the media is how to prevent terrorists from using the media as a platform for their views.
I think we have to admit that terrorist groups receive more attention and make their positions better known because of their acts. Few people had even heard of groups like the Hanafi Muslims or Basque Separatists before they carried out terrorist attacks.
The media must make every attempt, however, to minimize the propaganda value of terrorist incidents and put the actions of terrorists into perspective. We have an obligation to inform our readers and viewers of their backgrounds, their demands and what they hope to accomplish. But we must not forget that terrorists are criminals. We must make sure we do not glorify them, or give unwarranted exposure to their point of view.
We often think of terrorists as unsophisticated. But many are media savvy. They can and do arrange their activities to maximize media exposure and ensure that the story is presented their way. As one terrorist is supposed to have said to his compatriot: "Don't shoot now. We're not in prime time."
Terrorists have taken the following steps to influence media coverage: arrange for press pools; grant exclusive interviews during which favored reporters are given carefully selected information; hold press conferences in which hostages and others are made available to the press under conditions imposed by the captors; provide videotapes that portray events as the terrorists wish them to be portrayed, and schedule the release of news and other events so that television deadlines can be met.
There is a real danger, in short, that terrorists hijack not only airplanes and hostages, but the media as well.
To guard against this, the television networks in our country rarely -- almost never -- allow terrorists to appear live. They also resist using videotape provided by terrorists. If there is no alternative, our commentators continually report that the material is "terrorist-supplied" so that viewers can evaluate its veracity and meaning. Likewise, when terrorists make hostages available for interviews, our commentators repeatedly indicate -- or they should -- that the captives are speaking under duress.
When one network reporter interviewed the hostages in the recent TWA hijacking by telephone, he said: "Walk away from the phone if you're under duress, or if you don't want to talk." One of them did walk away. Even when there is no evident coercion, the networks repeat that terrorists are standing by, although they are not visible on the screen. We also try to identify carefully and repeatedly the backgrounds and biases of the people we interview, including the hostages themselves.
Forbidding terrorists their platform goes beyond using specific techniques. It is more an issue of exercising sound editorial judgment.
Over the years, the media constantly have been confronted with attempts at manipulation. In the days of the Vietnam war, for example, we would get calls from protest groups saying, "We're going to pour chicken blood all over the entrance to Dow Chemical Company. Come cover this event." We didn't. But we did cover a Buddhist monk who wished to be filmed setting fire to himself.
How did we make the distinction? Here it was a question of trivial versus serious intent and result, of low versus high stakes. Clearly, the suicide was of cataclysmic importance to the monk.
The point is that we generally know when we are being manipulated, and we've learned better how and where to draw the line, though the decisions are often difficult.
A few years ago, for example, a Croatian terrorist group in a plane demanded that its statement be printed in several newspapers, including The Washington Post, before it would release 50 hostages. In the end, we printed the statement in agate, the smallest type size we have, in 37 copies of the paper at the end of our press run. Now I'm not so sure we would accede to this demand in any form.
The heat of coverage. That brings me to a third issue challenging the media: How can we avoid bringing undue pressure on the government to settle terrorist crises by whatever means, including acceding to the terrorist's demands?
State Department officials tell me that media coverage does indeed bring pressure on the government. But not undue pressure. However, I believe there are pitfalls of which the media should be exceedingly careful.
One is the amount of coverage devoted to a terrorist incident. During a crisis, we all want to know what is happening. But constant coverage can blow a terrorist incident far out of proportion to its real importance. Overexposure can preoccupy the public and the government to the exclusion of other issues.
During the TWA crisis, our networks constantly interrupted regularly scheduled programming with news flashes of dubious importance. And one network devoted its entire 22-minute evening newscast to the crisis. Many important topics were ignored.
The media have become aware of these dangers. The network coverage of the Achille Lauro incident was much more restrained. Some say it was only because it was difficult to cover and the crisis ended quickly. But the networks got better notices from the critics and the public.
Interviewing the families of hostages is another pitfall. There is a natural curiosity about how those near and dear to the captured are reacting to the life-or-death event. And the hostage families themselves often are anxious to receive media attention and present their views to the public.
But there is a fine line between legitimate inquiry and exploitation of human sentiment. The media can go too far. Tasteless invasion of privacy can result. The ultimate horror is the camera that awaits in ambush to record the family's reaction to the news of some personal tragedy.
There is also a real danger that public opinion can be unjustifiably influenced by exposure to the hostage relatives and their wives. The nationwide television audience becomes, in a sense, an extended family. We get to know these people intimately. Our natural sympathies go out to them. We often come to share their understandable desire to have their loved ones back at any cost.
This can force a government's hand. Last May, Israel released more than 1,000 Arab prisoners in exchange for three Israelis being held in Lebanon. It was an action that ran counter to Israeli policy. But the appearances of the families of the Israeli prisoners on television apparently made the Israeli government think it was a necessity.
I believe the media must be exceedingly careful with the questions they ask the relatives and, of course, the hostages themselves. When we ask if they agree with the government's policy or its handling of the incident, what they would do if they were in charge, or if they have messages for the president, we are setting up a predictable tension: Hostages and their families are, understandably, the most biased of witnesses. The media must exercise the same standards with them as they would with any other news source.
A final pitfall for the media is becoming, even inadvertently, a negotiator during a crisis. But it's tough to avoid. Simply by asking legitimate questions -- such as "What are your demands?" -- the media can become part of the negotiating process. Questions that ask "What would you do if . . . " are particularly dangerous. The question put to Nabih Berri, the Amal Shiite leader, during the TWA crisis by the host of one of our morning news shows was completely out of line and is so acknowledged. He asked: "Do you have a message for the president?"
As much as we abhor terrorism, the media cannot be diplomats, negotiators or agents for the government. If terrorists or urban rioters believe we are -- if they believe, for example, that we will turn over our unused tapes, or pictures, or notes to the police -- they will not give us information. They may even attack us.
Technology intensifies our problems. Before the advent of satellites, there was usually a 24-hour delay between the moment news was gathered overseas and the moment it was broadcast. Indeed, what appeared on the nightly news often had been in the morning paper. This meant that television news executives had at least some amount of time in which to reflect, discuss and decide on whether a story should be broadcast and how it should be presented.
Today our networks have the technological capability to present events live -- any time, any place. As a result, the decisions about what to cover and how to cover are tougher. And they must be made faster, sometimes on the spot. The risks of making a mistake rise accordingly.
Intense competition in the news business raises the stakes even more. The electronic media in the United States live or die by their ratings, the number of viewers they attract. As a result, each network wants to be the first with the most on any big story. It's hard to stay cool in the face of this pressure.
This has created some unseemly spectacles and poor news decisions. During the TWA crisis, for example, the U.S. networks ran promotion campaigns on the air and in print touting the scoops and exclusives that each had obtained. This commercialized and trivialized a dangerous and important event.
The most dangerous potential result of unbridled competition is what we have come to call the lowest-common-denominator factor. I believe that all of the serious, professional media -- print and electronic -- are anxious to be as responsible as possible. We want to do nothing that would endanger human life or national security. But, unfortunately, high standards of professionalism do not guide every media organization and reporter. And I regret to say that once one of these less scrupulous or less careful people reports some piece of information, all the media feel compelled to follow. Thus it is true: The least responsible person involved in the process could determine the level of coverage.
These problems of covering terrorism are serious. But in spite of them, I believe the benefits of full disclosure far outweigh any possible adverse consequences. I believe the harm of restricting coverage far surpasses the evils of broadcasting even erroneous or damaging information.
American democracy rests on the belief, which the centuries have proven true, that people can and do make intelligent decisions about great issues if they have the facts.
But to hear some politicians talk, you wouldn't think they believed it. They appear to be afraid that people will believe the terrorist's message and agree, not only to his demands, but to his beliefs. And so they seek to muzzle the media or enlist their support in the government's cause.
I think this is a fatal mistake. It is a slippery slope when the media start to act on behalf of any interest, no matter how worthy -- when editors decide what to print on the basis of what they believe is good for people to know. It's dangerous if we are asked to become a kind of super-political agency.
I believe that terrorism is ultimately a self-defeating platform from which to present a case. Terrorists, in effect, hang themselves whenever they act. They convey hatred, violence, terror itself. There was no clearer image of what a terrorist really is than the unforgettable picture of that crazed man holding a gun to the head of the pilot aboard the TWA jet. That said it all to me -- and, I believe, to the world.
Publicity may be the oxygen of terrorists. But I say this: News is the lifeblood of liberty. If the terrorists succeed in depriving us of freedom, their victory will be far greater than they ever hoped and far worse than we ever feared. Let it never come to pass.