Michael J. O'Neill

Terrorism and Television

VTR Date: November 22, 1986

Guest: O'Neill, Michael J.


VTR: 11/22/86

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Recently, M.J. Rossant, the Director of The Twentieth Century Fund, put one view of the relationship between terrorism and television right on the line, with no ifs, ands or buts. About terrorists, he wrote: “Among their accomplishments is an increasingly astute exploitation of the electronic media, specifically television, in pursuit of their aims.” Then, with that proposition very much in mind, the Twentieth Century Fund asked an old friend of mine to ponder some of the dilemmas posed by television coverage of terrorism. And Michael J O’Neill, that crusty print journalist, former Editor of The New York Daily News and former President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, has responded – rather delightedly I would guess – with a slim, but powerful, much – more – than – occasional paper (an indictment, in fact) rather revealingly entitled Terrorist Spectaculars: Should TV Coverage be Curbed

Now, some of you will remember that Mike O’Neill has several times joined me on THE OPEN MIND and rather harshly criticized his own print medium for its outrageous faults, foibles, and failures. When he’s cast stones at journalism, the very first ones have found their mark among his own print colleagues. But let’s be frank: what at this very table he has quite bitterly referred to as “the beady red eye” of television, has always ticked him off the most. And what pointedly anti – television sentiments Mike harbors clearly most inform his enormously critical analysis of what he labels, “terrorist spectaculars.”

So welcome, Mike O’Neill, to THE OPEN MIND once again. I wonder if you’d mind if I do a little quoting, from you, to start the program?

O’NEILL: Not at all.

HEFFNER: All right? I mean, it’s a beautiful prose. “It is simply recognition of a fundamental fact, in terrorist incidence television is now overwhelmingly the dominant medium; it mobilizes public emotions, influences government policies and even shapes the events themselves. Of necessity, it is the centerpiece in any discussion of coverage problems.” You begin your book, Terrorist Spectaculars that way, and you go on, if I may just . . . if you’ll bear with me a moment more … talking about the TWA plane seized with hostages: “These poignant scenes were repeated again and again on television. The purpose was not to report new developments in the story, because the hostages had been interviewed the night before. It was not to fulfill journalism’s duty to keep the American informed; the public already had the news. It was simply and purely a theatrical device – little pieces of human stress cut out of reality, rearranged, and pasted together again tot maximum entertainment effect, all to stimulate the emotions of viewers and keep them riveted to the television channel.” And one other quote: “And one of these illusions is that television news is just the same as any other news defended by the Constitution, when, in fact, there are important differences.” So you seem to be saying or writing a mouthful here, Mike.

O’NEILL: Well, number one, right off the bat, Dick, not to be contentious in any way, shape or form, but I would take issue with your reference to me as being “crusty,” and secondly, I would take issue with your reference to my being “anti – television.” I don’t really regard this – although this is can be interpreted as a critical analysis. I don’t regard it as being an anti-television kind of analysis. It’s an attempt to look at what television really is, how it is used, and to what extent it effects, for good or ill, the way policy is made and the way great issues like terrorist crises are actually solved.

HEFFNER: Suppose I take back the anti-television, but it seems to be anti—television news the way television news has generally, in this country, covered terrorist acts.

O’NEILL: Well, yes. I think . . . what I’m really trying to do here, and perhaps over dramatizing it, is an attempt to show that there is an essential . . . there are essential differences between print media and television media, both in terms of their intrinsic nature and how they inter-react with audiences, with readers , and in their impact upon policy and on events in what is increasingly becoming a mass . . . a (?) mass societies, mass publics, and mass communications. Let’s take one particular example, having nothing to do with terrorism. Let’s take the explosion of Challenger. We . . . people were watching the launch that included the teachers we know, with seven astronauts, seven people aboard. We saw, suddenly, on our television screens, we saw that Challenger blow up right before our eyes. And millions of people saw it then. What is different about that and the print media? The newspapers had to convert that scene into words. They then came out a day, many hours, and even a day later. That scene was an actual experience that a lot of people saw in real time – the ones that were actually watching. But what is absolutely unique about television is that they were able to take that real experience, transport it from that time to another time later on in the evening – the next day, five days later – and people did not just read about that event in terms of history, they re-experienced it, they felt it, they had this terrible feeling of seeing seven people die before their eyes. It is an emotional experience, highly emotional experience, it is an impressionistic experience and it can be repeated over and over and over again, multiplying effects and creating a different kind of knowledge and forming opinions in a different . . . in an impressionistic rather than reason way and these are very fundamental differences that I think we have to understand. And the nature by which … and the way that television covers the news has to adjust to these realities so that we do not, by this magnifying process – magnifying of emotions, etc. – that we do not distort events and create reactions that are way out of proportion to the reality.

HEFFNER: Mike, I don’t think anyone would disagree with you. Certainly no one associated with the electronic media – they, in fact, would embrace that description and say, ‘Look what we do?’ You’re a terrific time salesperson for television. But you go on to say . . . what you describe about Challenger leads to the development of public attitudes, and attitudes on the part of the terrorists themselves, that are enormously negative. So no one’s denying what you describe, but you go on to say, this description is (a) true, and (b) devastatingly true in terms of what the terrorists do. No?

O’NEILL: Yeah, I think that’s true. But let’s recognize what happened in the Challenger and then move over and see how that applies, for example, in the case of terrorism. If people witness a reality, an event, and that is one thing – if they actually see a car getting smashed up on a corner down the street. They’ll see that event once and they will react and they will experience it once. But if they aren’t at that corner, they read about it in the newspaper and that has to be translated into words. The emotional equivalent, the emotional impact is enormously reduced. And it’s not repeated. It can only be repeated as kind of history. In the case of coverage, actual coverage of an event, it can be repeated over and over again and multiply reactions and create massive public opinion – as in the case of the TWA hostage crisis, where the constant hammering away on that particular story created mass emotions and impacted on the President. We saw it just now, by the way, in Iran. It was quite clear, from all the stories that came out, that the President fell under terrible pressure to do something about the hostages in Iran. And that was one of the motivating forces, apparently, that was involved in his going along with this arms trade deal behind closed doors. And that same kind of emotional impact affected his decision, for example, on both putting the marines into Lebanon in one case, and taking them out in another case.

HEFFNER: So you’re saying that if the President can be that affected by what he sees over and over again on television, think about the rest of us in the formulation of opinion. I won’t say it goes without saying, because you say it and you write it so well, and I’m glad that you did. I just had this sort of feeling that you forgive me, cop out a little at the end. What you describe, and you describe so well, leads you to say, what, number one, it seems to me that it encourages terrorism. Maybe that’s too strong a word. But it doesn’t discourage it. And then I looked for O’Neill to say, therefore we’re going to do something about it. .

O’NEILL: . . . we’re going to do something about it.

HEFFNER: And what does O’Neill say?

O’NEILL: Well, number one, one of my main principles in life, I guess, in my mature years, is that there are a lot of problems for which there are no solutions. And there are a lot of problems for which there are no complete solutions. I have no simple ABC kind of solution for the kind of exaggerated, highly hyper, emotional kind of coverage that enormously affects events like hostage crises. But, what I do say is that the main ingredient of a lot of that coverage is entertainment, not actual, factual news coverage. I suggest that by reducing the entertainment elements in highly dangerous situations where lives are at stake – hostages’ lives are at stake – that television should reduce deliberately, by itself . . . on it’s own, the amount of entertainment elements that it pumps into a story simply for dramatic affect – such as repeating those scenes that you just quoted about. Secondly, I think that television should not … should reduce the celebrity element that has become so prominent now in television coverage of news. You don’t have to take my word for it. Bill Moyers, in the article in Newsweek explained why he was leaving CBS. He said he was leaving because more and more and more, the entertainment element was being … was taking over the control of news coverage on the networks. That’s Bill Moyers talking, not me talking. Whether that’s true or not, and the degree to whether it is true or not and what should be done about it is one thing, but in hostage cases where lives are at stake, where policy is extremely difficult to work out, I think that’s a case where they need hold down on the celebrity coverage so we don’t have anchors negotiating . . . as they did in the TWA crisis . . negotiating with the spokesman for the terrorist, just as if they were the intermediaries between our government and the terrorists.

HEFFNER: Mike, let me ask whether there is any indication that anchor negotiations, and all of the other things that you deplore, are more than examples of poor sense, bad taste, that indeed they did exacerbate the situation vis-a-vis terrorists. I mean, it’s one thing to say “terrorist spectaculars” . . . it’s one thing to say that these fellows want to have their way on television. Is there any proof; is there any indication that we have been subjected more rather than less to trauma on the part of terrorists because of the potential television coverage?

O’NEILL: I think . . . I think that Larry Grossman, for example, who is the President of NBC News, gave a speech in which he conceded that whether he liked it or not, or anyone else liked it or not, that there was no doubt that the sheer existence of television and what it could do in terms of publicizing causes and publicizing dramatic events like terrorist crises tends to promote what they call the “copycatting effect.” In other words, where it gives the idea to other terrorists to use terrorism as a means to publicize their causes. So I think that both in terms of legal . . . not legal, but in terms of experts on counter terrorism and in terms of people like Mr. Grossman, I think there is a . . . even the network people would concede that inevitably television does tend to promote the use of television by terrorists.

HEFFNER: Well of course, you say some very interesting things. You imply . . . well, you say it . . . that there is a rational factor to print that is absent in the electronic media – that television somehow or other, through its repetitive capacity, can take an event, as you suggest, and show it again and again and again and again, that it just builds us up, it doesn’t give us time to think.

O’NEILL: It’s not just the repetition, Dick. It’s the business of showing pictures and personalities and people . . . and personalities engaged . . . David Hartman, for example, talking person to person over the . . . in a direct live broadcast with both Olga and her husband Conwell, while Conwell was actually in the . . . in Nabi Bern’s home, under guard, in Beirut. Highly dramatic and therefore highly emotion wise kind of coverage. You could not reproduce the drama of that and produce the personal kind of reactions among many ordinary citizens through the print media – whether we like it or not.

HEFFNER: Well, you say you couldn’t reproduce that through the print media. I’ve been around long enough, and you’ve been around long enough to know that there have been a lot of people in the past, before television, who complained in almost the same terms, certainly along the same lines, about your medium – about print. Okay.

O’NEILL: I can’t believe it (laughter).

HEFFNER: Can’t believe it my eye! You do believe it and you do remember it. Now, question: seriously, if we were to concede and I would embrace what you say certainly, but I’m looking for O’Neill to say, therefore we have to do this or we have to do that. Suppose one were to concede every point that you so strongly and well make in Terrorist Spectaculars The question you ask, I don’t get the answer. The subtitle: Should TV Coverage Be Curbed — you say some things about “should.” A few months ago you talked about “should.” How about “would.”

O’NEILL: Well, I think that . . . I already mentioned the idea of reducing the theatrical devices in terrorist situations.

HEFFNER: Excuse me. Who’s going to reduce it?

O’NEILL: The networks themselves. I’m not . . . I’m absolutely opposed to any kind of government intervention. We can see how the government tried to manage the Iranian arms deal and it was a total fiasco. So we certainly don’t want government doing this. We need to develop ways to encourage the networks . . . encourage television in general, not just the networks, to take these kinds of considerations into effect and try to improve – just as we all try to improve journalism as we go along. And by the way, I should say right up front that I think that a lot of the leaders, a lot of the people in the networks, the heads of the networks, a lot of other television executives in local stations, etc., I think are all striving to work toward a more satisfactory kind of journalism that will serve both their interests and the public’s interest. And I think there are things that can be done by them, voluntarily, in terms of holding down the hype, reducing the use of anchors in terms of direct intervention in crisis situations like this so they rightly or wrongly aren’t considered aren’t taken to be negotiators or mediators, either by the hostages or by the government or by both. I think that they should be extremely careful since television, unlike newspapers, is an immediate medium. It can deliver news right away. So they should not, I don’t think, be too free and easy about reporting sensitive security developments right away – as, for example, the movement of the Delta Force in the TWA crisis – the movement of our fleet. We claim that we all operate under the theory that it’s the people’s right to know that we are serving, and the people do have a right to know those things. But they don’t necessarily need to know all of them right away and we cannot justify rushing out with an exclusive for the sole reason of beating the opposition and try to make . . . convert that into being something that we’re doing to serve the public.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but

O’NEILL: . . . And that’s why I worry because I don’t . . . we don’t want the public intervening with regulations, etc.

HEFFNER: Mike, I hear what you are saying, but I’m also reading what you wrote.


HEFFNER: That’s a terrible thing to do; I know – quote a guy. “Reforms therefore need to be imposed by outside forces.” I didn’t write that.

O’NEILL: I know you didn’t, but that’s just typical of taking something out of context.

HEFFNER: Do you want me to read the rest of the

O’NEILL: Well, you have to read the whole chapter (laughter) to get that idea across. What I’m saying is, is that one of the forces to move the media toward improvement . . . improved practices . . . are forces within . . . outside forces. By that I mean, the public – your viewers are the best power in the world to influence your program, Dick. The same way with readers are the best way to influence editors. Special interest groups, various associations that have an interest in better relations with the press, and this, that, and the other thing. There are all sorts of groups, I guess, that ought to be constantly criticizing, constructively hopefully, criticizing the media for what they are doing in prodding the media toward self-improvement programs.

HEFFNER: Right. Let me . .

O’NEILL: . . . I’m not talking about government regulation.

HEFFNER: Alright, let me ask you this question. It’s being asked straight. We’ve been experiencing the problems with terrorists for some years now. The kinds of things you describe and describe so very, very well in this book have been going on. Do you really feel that so much progress has been made in terms of the recognition of the distastefulness and the dangerousness of these procedures that the next time around, the next terrorist involvement, what you’ve described here won’t take place? In other words, will these reforms be made voluntarily?

O’NEILL: Yes. I think that a legitimate argument that has been made to what I’ve said here is by some of the people in the television business is that they already have taken steps to eliminate some of the abuses that were so dramatically seen so dramatically in the TWA crisis. For example, the over exposure of families and hostages to interviews. The flying of families . . . paying families to fly out hither . . . here, there and yonder in order be interviewed and so forth. In a lot of those practices, they say they themselves did not feel comfortable about it at the time of the TWA crisis and have and are seeking to try to eliminate some of these abuses in the future. But the . . . a lot of those same kinds of resolutions New Year’s resolutions, were made at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis. And when the crisis really broke . . . in the TWA crisis in 1985, a lot of those resolutions got forgotten. And all I’m saying is that we have to keep constantly prodding for a more mature, restrained, responsible kind of coverage to keep a recurrence … of the TWA or the Iranian hostage crisis from recurring.

HEFFNER: You know, it interests me that you put your emphasis upon the fault here in terms of entertainment. This is a medium that is essentially an entertainment medium, as you suggest the printed press is not. Yes, there are entertainments, but that’s not the primary function. I was surprised that you didn’t seem to emphasize another aspect of this, perhaps more fundamental than entertainment, and that is the commercial nature of the medium – the competitive nature of the medium. You could eliminate all the dancing girls and all the song and dance guys and the handsome young men and the handsome young women you wanted out of the news departments , but they are competitive and won’t that competitiveness, as it does in your own print medium, still lead to these abuses?

O’NEILL: I don’t think that the utopia is ever going to be achieved. I mean, I would like to . . . that would be a nice thing to happen. And so I agree with you. I think that competition will continue. And to the extent that competition drives people toward abuses, we’re always going to have abuses and we’re going to have exceptions. And rules and the various guidelines which all the networks have written will be broken, in the future as they have been in the past. But the incidence may well be reduced if there is a constant pressure so that peer group pressures – that is, the competitors on both sides of the street are driven in the same direction on sensitive stories like this by peer group pressures that say that this is the right thing to do, that’s the wrong thing to do, and we’re going to do the right thing, even if in any other kind of a competitive situation we might not. And so those are things that we’re just struggling to try to bring about.

HEFFNER: Of course you do in your book indicate that with one particularly outrageous example – in your own estimation of television entertainment – that there was only one critic on one of the networks of this outrageous act. And on the part of the others – nothing whatsoever.

O’NEILL: Well, there is a case where the print journalism is in pretty… needs to be indicted too. It seems to me that institutions, whether it be the financial world, which is now having the SEC do some work to clean up its act in the arbitrage business, so are so in all of these different professions, you need outside forces – the pubic, if you will – you need to bring pressure on the legal profession to enforce its own cannons of ethics, you need pressure on the media to enforce its own cannons of ethics. The problem with the media, the very special problem is of course, it is the medium by which pressure is brought to bear on one institution or another. And the difficulty here is that if the . . . if one institution, say the legal profession, wants to attack the medium, it needs the medium to get its message delivered. And that presents . . . that’s one of the reasons you don’t get too much criticism of the media in the media.

HEFFNER: There also seems to be . . . and we have thirty seconds left, Mike . . . an indication on your part that this particular medium isn’t yet a profession, so it makes it more difficult television.

O’NEILL: Possibly true, although I don’t necessarily consider the legal profession just because it’s a profession necessarily operating with much higher standards than we do.

HEFFNER: So next time I’ll have to go back and take on the legal profession. Mike O’Neill thanks so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

O’NEILL: Thank you, Dick.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s subject, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey, the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, Mr. Lawrence A. Wien, Pfizer Inc., and The New York Times Company Foundation.