Portraying 'potential terrorists' is risky business
What is the right role for the media in helping fight the war on terror?
"We have no confirmation that these men's behavior was anything but innocuous, and to forever taint them by associating them with terrorism under these circumstances is not consistent with our policy.” This was the recent justification by David McCumber, managing editor of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for not running the photos of two men that the FBI says were spotted by employees of a Washington State Ferry for "acting suspiciously.”
In our post-9/11, terrorism-obsessed world, there is much debate regarding the appropriate role of the media in helping to fight the "war on terror.” It is fair to say that most Americans would agree that if the FBI said two guys (who just happened to look like they might be from the Middle East and were photographed by the ferry's captain) were acting suspiciously and riding the ferry on numerous occasions, then the media should publish those pictures at the government's request. Sounds simple enough, right?
The FBI was looking to talk to these two guys (even though the FBI says the two men's actions could be totally "innocuous”) in order to ask them some questions. But the issue is far from a simple one for those of us in the media who consider the importance of the U.S. Constitution and how it is supposed to be protected for all, as well as the civil liberties and rights that are supposed to be afforded to all citizens. Who knows what these so-called Arab looking men were doing riding the ferry in Seattle? So what is the harm in having The Seattle Post-Intelligencer run their pictures on the front page? Rather be safe now than sorry later, right? After all, aren't journalists Americans first? Don't we all want to protect our country from potential terrorism before it happens? These are all legitimate questions and admittedly this is a very tough judgment call for any editor of a newspaper or key decision maker of a television news operation.
Yet, here is where I come down on this. These two guys committed no crime. They are not even suspects in a crime. The FBI was looking for them for weeks, but couldn't find them. As a result, they decided in what is a very rare move for the federal agency to ask the media to post their pictures so that all citizens in the Seattle area could be involved in identifying them.
Do we really want to trample the Constitution and people's civil liberties and rights because the federal agency with a pretty spotty record on intelligence matters (together with the CIA) says they need the media's help? I say the bar to release these photos must be higher than just thinking these guys might potentially be involved in suspicious activities.
Bush administration is inconsistent when dealing with terrorism
The Bush administration has a weak and inconsistent track record of dealing with terrorism. These are the same federal officials who wanted to engage in the highly suspect wire tapping of our telephone conversations. The only reason it was scrapped was because of the media and public outcry against it. At the same time, the Bush administration wanted to turn a vital port over to a Dubai based corporation when in fact there was reason to believe that the United Arab Emirates may not have been doing all that it could to help fight the United States so-called war on terrorism. Again, many in the media and the public were outraged at the prospect and the Dubai port deal was scrapped.
My concern is that releasing the photos of these two guys who happen to look Arab could incite some over-anxious "patriots” to engage in some form of vigilantism. Is it inconceivable that some citizens could take the law into their own hands to stop a potential terrorist from harming us? My concern is the fact that most Americans are okay with releasing the photos of these two guys because they are not white or black or Hispanic. They are probably from the Middle East. Isn't this some form of racial or ethnic profiling? If so, are we saying it is okay to profile "Arab looking men” but not black or Hispanic men driving on the New Jersey Turnpike or walking in a mostly white suburban neighborhood? Profiling in any form is wrong.
Judgement call tough; bar should be set high
What about the "Arab looking men” who might get mistaken for the men in the photo and get pulled off the street with their families and questioned by the FBI? No big deal, right? I say it is a big deal. I say the bar should be much higher for the FBI or any government agency who wants those of us in the media to put photos of "potential terrorists”—not suspects, not criminals, but "potential terrorists”—on the front page of a newspaper or as the lead story on cable news.
It is a tough judgment call and I understand those who disagree with The Seattle Post-Intelligencer not running the photos. But aren't we in the media supposed to help protect the rights of those who might be victimized by the government? Aren't we in the media supposed to understand the tough ethical questions surrounding the Constitution and civil liberties as well as civil rights? We in the media should tell the feds to give us more of a reason—more evidence (confidentially, of course)—to publish photos of people who might have done nothing wrong but happened to be riding the ferry more than some people thought they should have. No, this is simply not a question of being a "good American” joining the "war on terror.” If it were that easy, there would be no need to even write a column like this and raise these difficult and complex questions. What do you think? Run the photos or not? Write to me and let me know at
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