Executing journalists a savage, futile act

Sep 4, 2014

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

When will these ISIS terrorist thugs realize that the phrase “U.S. journalist” concerns geography, not political science?

Killing journalists from this county does get you headlines, but history tells us that it’s an ignorant, tragic and foolish belief to think that the government of the United States will change geo-political directions because journalists die.

Clearly, those who Tuesday killed journalist Steven Sotloff — and who killed photojournalist James Foley on August 19 — are as ignorant or deliberately dismissive of how a free press functions as they are brutal in their methods of gaining the world’s attention.

Journalists from a nation with a free press do not control the news. They do not make the news. And they do not collaborate with, nor are they controlled by, those who do. Here’s a headline from the real world: There is no direct line between the Pentagon, White House and any news organization in America where policy is set or strategy is determined.

For more often, the press in America — whether reporting domestically or from other nations — is seen as a counterweight to official statements by U.S. government officials, and a watchdog on whether the nation’s leaders are doing what they say they are doing.

Yes, at times, the U.S. press wrongly has taken government at its word: The failure to fully pursue what turned out to be unsupported claims of “weapons of mass destruction” still echoes today. But more often, journalists operating under the shield of the First Amendment have been seen as critics or even opponents of what the nation’s political leaders recommend or the course being pursued.

Famously, a U.S. press reporting freely from Vietnam is blamed by some as a reason “America lost the war.” Reports from journalists on the scene called into question information from U.S. military briefings and enemy body counts. The famed “credibility gap” that plagued several administrations was rooted in the difference between what high White House officials said about the progress of that war and what the nation on a daily basis read in newspapers and saw on TV.

It’s difficult to think of an important public issue on which there is not some American journalist asking the difficult questions or challenging official accounts, which makes the fate of Foley and of Sotloff — who disappeared while reporting from Syria in 2013 — as senseless as it is tragic.

If ISIS was serious about changing American public opinion, it would not do so with tactics that will simply harden public support for U.S. military strikes against it. We need look no further than the most serious terrorist strike against America, on Sept. 11, 2001. American policies in the Middle East hardened amidst a surge in patriotism and increased public sentiment for a military response against those who carried out the attack.

A sad irony also follows both deaths. Neither Foley nor Sotloff’s work focused on the political or military aspects of whatever ISIS wants from the Obama administration. Each was focused — and perhaps more vulnerable to the abduction that put them in ultimate harm’s way — by reporting directly on the “people” angles of the Syrian civil war and other conflict in the region.

About a week ago, Sotloff’s mother, Shirley Sotloff, made a video plea to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi not to kill her son. In it, she said, “Steven is a journalist who traveled to the Middle East to cover the suffering of Muslims at the hands of tyrants. Steven is a loyal and generous son, brother and grandson,” she said. “He is an honorable man and has always tried to help the weak.”

In the most recent video, the terrorist speaking to the camera said, “I’m back Obama and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence in continuing your bombings. Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.” A third captive journalist, a British citizen, was shown at the end of the Sotloff video, with warning of a third execution.

Yes, Sotloff apparently was forced in the video, just prior to his death as was Foley, to recite a statement questioning U.S. involvement in Iraq. But that recitation does not politicize his work as a journalist nor in any way justify his senseless execution. And with many news organizations declining to show the most recent video, as they did with one of the Foley murder — the desired policy impact is even more remote.

The only real message — so cruelly delivered not by the news media but these online merchants of deaths — is one of futility and shame on those who composed the statements, held the cameras, posted the videos and wielded the knives.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org.