During the noon hour on CNN, host Ashleigh Banfield told viewers why the network would not be showing images of the latest barbaric action by the Islamic State terrorist group. According to reports, the group executed captured Jordanian pilot Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh by burning him alive, an act that the group sought to publicize with images. The Islamic State, which is also often referred to as ISIS, had captured Kaseasbeh in December after the pilot crashed in Syria.
In explaining CNN’s decision to withhold the images, Banfield said, “CNN has chosen not to show these images — twofold reason: They are terribly graphic and cruel but also they are of high propaganda value to ISIS members and that is not something that the United States has any interest, nor broadcasters, in helping to propagate.”
At the kickoff of her 2 p.m. show, host Brooke Baldwin explained both CNN policy and Brooke Baldwin policy vis-a-vis this heinousness:
CNN has decided we will absolutely not show any of these appalling pictures out of the respect for the families and to avoid showcasing this brutal ISIS propaganda. But I will tell you, I have chosen not to watch this video. I have several colleagues who have watched it who have described to me exactly what they’ve seen. And they say it is extremely highly produced, very sophisticated. You see this pilot first speaking into the camera, he’s then walked in front of a line of armed ISIS fighters and then in the next frame it shows he’s standing in this cage. Two ISIS terrorists light some kind of fuel-soaked line which then quickly trails toward the cage. He is then heard screaming over and over as he is engulfed in flames.
Here’s how the New York Times described the same scene: “In the final minutes of the video, he is shown inside a black-barred cage, his jumpsuit soaked in what appears to be gasoline. A hooded Islamic State fighter theatrically lights a torch. The pilot is engulfed in flames. He is shown collapsing to his knees, then falls backward.” The Times published a photo of Kaseasbeh in the orange jumpsuit in front of a line of armed fighters.
The Daily Mail provided this brief explanation of its decision not to share the most troubling of the images: “Flames are seen quickly spreading across the dirt to the cage where they completely engulf the helpless pilot in images that are far too distressing to publish.”
On Fox News, Chief News Anchor Shepard Smith in the 2 p.m. hour gave viewers an explanation of what he’d be doing when his 3 p.m. show got underway:
I’ve been careful over the last few releases of ISIS videos not to watch them because the beginning of the beheadings, it was just frankly more than you could take day in and day out sitting around here. But today, this is new and you don’t want to watch this, so I watched it. I watched the whole thing, and I took like six pages of notes on it. Because I feel like if what you want to do is know what they were doing in this video, what they’re saying in this video and how they’ve ratcheted up this to another level, then somebody ought to tell you. At least what’s there, without trying to gross you out in the process. So that’s what I’m going to do. Right when we hit the top of the hour, I’m going to go through these six pages of notes and just sort of tell you. We’re not going to show you anything and we’re not going to be specific to the point of gore because I don’t think that that’s helpful. But we are going to tell you exactly what this 23-minute video is all about. I know you’ve heard that it’s heavily produced — well, I’m going to explain to you how it is and to what effect.
At 3:15 p.m., Smith advised viewers who didn’t want to know what happened to “mute the TV for about five or six minutes.” Smith then provided an extensive description of the video. It was a gripping summary, as Smith used details that conveyed the grimness and inhumanity of the event:
That line of sand stretches from that torch to the cage that contains the hostage, Jordanian pilot. And once that line of sand is lit, it burns like a fuse. It’s a number of feet long. Because of the edits I couldn’t give you a description of how long. But eventually with dramatic effect that fuse burns to the edge of the cage and as it reaches this metal cage, the sand at the bottom of the cage then appears to light across the cage on one side only in a line that moves from the edge of the cage toward the hostage inside the cage. And he stands there. And he’s in his orange jumpsuit and he’s standing upright like you just saw. And he’s looking ahead. And first the flames touch the hostage’s pants and they catch fire. And then it moves up and it ignites his shirt. The hostage, the pilot we know, begins to jump around in the cage. He flails his hands about shoulder high and then soon covers his face with his hands. He’s on fire, every bit of him.
According to a Fox News spokeswoman, the network isn’t showing the video — just still photos, and none that depict the Jordanian pilot in flames.
Last Friday, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo wrote a somewhat prescient Facebook post about balancing news and propaganda in reply to a frequently asked question from viewers. “Yes I refer to #isis as #daesh increasingly because I think it is not necessary to call a terror group what it likes to be called. I prefer to call them a name that is also accurate (Daesh is the acronym in Arabic for the group) that the group does not like,” he wrote.
He continued: “So why mention them at all? Why give Daesh and other terror groups the attention? Are we just fanning the flames and making them more popular? Tough questions. I wish it were as easy as ignoring them and they go away,” wrote Cuomo. “But it is a balance: telling you what matters – and the movements of those who want to rule the world and kill all who disagree matters, with the unnecessary hyping and legitimacy that often finds its way into selling a story.”
That balance must be sought on a case-by-case basis. Is it big news that the Islamic State group found an even more heinous way of executing a captive? Yes, it is: The burning-to-death of a Jordanian pilot may suggest that these terrorists weren’t pleased with the publicity generated by its various beheadings. “It also just indicates the degree to which whatever ideology they’re operating off of, it’s bankrupt,” said President Obama in some off-the-cuff comments this afternoon.
News organizations have had to make quick editorial decisions here. Show still shots? Describe the video in general terms? Describe the video in detailed terms? What approach best informs viewers while not advancing the terrorists’ propaganda agenda? Who knows. Thank goodness, after all, that there’s no entry in the ethics handbook on how to cover terrorists marching a man in front of armed militants, putting a man in a cage and torching him, all while capturing the event on video.
Let’s make this the photo we share of Moaz al-Kasasbeh. Do not share what ISIS want us to share. pic.twitter.com/n0eImqqMDm
— Historical Pics (@HistoricalPics) February 3, 2015