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American Television Sets Stage for Terrorists, Expert Says

March 10, 1990|HERMAN WONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Terrorism isn't a pretty subject. It evokes images that are at once horrendous and deadly, but also enormously dramatic and compelling.

Indeed, argues Alex Schmid--an international expert on terrorism who was at UC Irvine on Wednesday for a lecture--these hijackings, kidnapings, bombings and related violence are tailor-made for prime time TV.

This is especially true, he said, for prolonged acts of terrorism, such as the 1985 Shia Muslim hijacking of TWA Flight 847 and the international bargaining that led to the release of 39 American hostages more than two weeks later.

"This was television (coverage) at its fastest, most exciting and competitive--and theatrical in a storytelling sense," said Schmid, a political scientist at the State University of Leiden in the Netherlands, in an interview at UCI's Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies.

But, he said, the American television coverage of the Flight 847 drama was typically too simplified, too keyed to pure emotions and subjected to the needs of "commercial news values" and high audience ratings.

The Flight 847 incident, said Schmid--a specialist in international media coverage of terrorism--became "a theater of terror" and a series of "terrorist spectaculars" for American audiences.

This kind of coverage, he said, demonstrates the peculiar relations between the media and terrorists.

"It's been said the terrorists manipulate the media. But it can also be said these are examples of mutual manipulation," he added. "I tend to subscribe to the argument that the media in many cases inspire and encourage terrorism--that the media can be the oxygen which terrorists need to stay alive."

The 46-year-old, Swiss-born Schmid lectured on "Terrorism and the Media: Freedom of Information vs. Freedom From Intimidation." It was the latest segment in the first program of its kind in Orange County--a nine-lecture series on the nature and impact of terrorism throughout the world.

Usually the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies, a multidiscipline program formed six years ago at UC Irvine, concerns itself with nuclear disarmament, Soviet society, American foreign relations and defense policies, and international peacemaking organizations, said center director Keith Nelson, a history professor. The center does not have specific studies or research on terrorism, Nelson said.

"But terrorism, obviously, is an exceptionally timely topic and--because of the hostages and other incidents--a now familiar one for many Americans," Nelson said. "The field is also related to another of our center's research concerns--public opinion and the role of the media in matters of conflict."

During his visit to UC Irvine, Schmid focused on those he calls "insurgent terrorists," such as the Shia Muslim militants in the 1985 TWA hijacking.

He said such acts, including bombings in public places, are in effect "war crimes but committed in times of peace." These are "unprovoked violent attacks against non-combatants" who are "randomly chosen or who are seen by terrorists as symbolic or representative targets."

And these terrorists, above all else, need--and exist on--media attention. "In other words, a new kind of violence has come about in the last two decades--a kind of violence which is performed in order to be reported," Schmid said. "If it is not reported, it cannot be successful.

"These terrorists try to conquer space in the papers and on the airwaves. They are waging a media war," Schmid said. "The attention that a mere handful of terrorists get through perpetrating atrocities gives them status--a negative status in the eyes of many--but status, nevertheless."

In Schmid's mind, American television often comes across as too eager, at times even too accommodating, in covering terrorism.

This is particularly true of the commercial networks, where the "marketing advantages" are obvious, Schmid maintained. "The terrorist stories possess the kind of highly personalized drama that translates into higher ratings," he said.

"It has been said--with some exaggeration--that terrorism is so ideally suited to television that the medium would have invented the phenomenon if it had not already existed."

Under these criteria, the Flight 847 hostage crisis, which dominated the news for weeks, couldn't have been better for the American networks, Schmid said.

"It became a situation where television itself, including the (network) anchormen, became participants--acting as go-betweens for the American government and the terrorists," he said.

The relentless daily coverage was a crucial factor in pressuring the Reagan Administration to seek the release of the 39 American hostages, Schmid said. One American, a serviceman, had already been killed by the hijackers, who had forced the flight from Athens to Lebanon.

"It was a case of television diplomacy at work," said Schmid of the outcome--the exchange of the Americans for 700 Shia Muslim militiamen held prisoner in Israel.

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