Media 'Crucial' to Terrorists, Author Finds

Photograph: Brigitte L. Nacos

Acts of anti-American terrorism are becoming increasingly common, and more and more are occurring on American soil, according to Columbia political scientist Brigitte L. Nacos.

The rise in terrorism is not a matter of flawed national security, she says. It can be linked to the success terrorists have had in exploiting the relationships among the media, public opinion and political decision-making, she states in her recent book, Terrorism and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the World Trade Center Bombing (Columbia University Press, 1994).

Nacos, an adjunct professor of government and politics, teaches the course "American Responses to International Terrorism: The Government, the Media and Public Opinion."

Nacos said in a recent interview that the media is "the crucial link in the terrorist's 'calculus of violence,' particularly terrorist spectaculars--large actions aimed at Americans, like the Iran hostage crisis, the bombing of PanAm Flight 103, and the hanging of hostage Lt. Colonel William Higgins in Lebanon."

In those instances, she said, the terrorists "exploited the free American media. They got an extraordinary amount of attention--up to two-thirds of the network evening news devoted to the events. Newspapers were similarly devoted."

The terrorists' manipulation of public opinion may cause the greatest harm, said Nacos.

"Except for the World Trade Center bombing, all these terrorist actions occurred abroad. The terrorists got their message across, via the media, to Washington and the public."

The result is that government policy is shaped by terrorist action, even when there's often a conflict of interest between the safety of hostages and the interests of the nation. Nacos said that political leaders face a dilemma in these situations.

"Public opinion polls reveal that a majority of Americans agree that we should never negotiate with terrorists, but in a time of crisis public opinion flip-flops. The media's efforts usually enhance the public siding with victims. As this shows, terrorists have achieved their objective. They've coerced government officials indirectly through the media," she said.

Nacos said she is not advocating controls on the media. "The book is not an attempt to bash the media. It's an attempt to demonstrate, through research, a problem in this relationship between international terrorism and the media," she said.

Censorship, the author said, shouldn't be part of the solution. "I am not advocating censorship in any shape or form. There should be no tinkering with the First Amendment because even if you could define the parameters of use, the restrictions could too easily spread to other areas. That's much too dangerous to do."

Nacos suggests that leaders should educate the public in times of terrorist actions, that it may be better to be honest with the public than to give contradictory messages. Nacos cited the example of President Reagan, who asserted that as a nation we would not negotiate with terrorists, while at the same time his aides were setting up an arms-for-hostages deal with Iranian extremists.

Nacos, who has appeared on CNN to discuss her new book, has received many calls from the national media. She is a correspondent for German daily newspapers, including Westfaelische Rundschan, Giessener Anzeiger and Neue Westfaelische.

She is collaborating on a book on Germany after reunification with Lewis Edinger, professor emeritus of comparative politics. She has been teaching at Columbia for the past seven years. A native of Hagen, Germany, Nacos received her Ph.D. in government and politics from Columbia in 1988.

Columbia University Record -- February 24, 1995 -- Vol. 20, No. 18