Complicated Complicity

A number of years ago I participated in a conversation facilitated by researchers at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., regarding the complicity of municipal police officers during Nazi rule and occupation of Europe.  The parties involved were law enforcement officers studying in a police leadership master’s program and doctoral candidates in leadership and policy.   Based on review of detailed information from the museum research staff, the group frankly considered the behavior of ordinary citizens who found themselves swept away from their ordinary behavior by a tide of unspeakable actions.  Everyone in the room acknowledged that a range of action represented “complicity,” from actively supporting the fascist agenda to merely turning a blind eye.  In between, a great deal of discussion hovered around the ethics of “doing the job” as directed: following orders, or the status quo, as justification of the actions.  The group of leadership-oriented students did not find satisfaction in these excuses, yet acknowledged limited ability to completely contextualize the actions of individuals immersed in a culture so far beyond our own experience.

In the present day, there are those associated with the media who rationalize overtly questionable activities with justifications similar to those of the police we discussed.  Paparazzi engage in stalking behavior made legal only by the public nature of the individuals they hound.  While for some, the compliment of a throng of photographers may be welcome, in exercising their “right” to report and photograph the off-stage life of famous people, the more rabid of these “reporters” have led directly or indirectly to damage beyond exposure to public scrutiny – even to the death of their prey. \

An underlying affirmation among such reporters stems from an assumption the public not only wants to know and see glimpses of the private lives of public figures, but also that there exists some “right” for them to know.  So, on these packs of scavengers proceed, desperately attempting to beat others to a titillating story.

Ironically, perhaps inexplicably, there appear to be some stories that go unaddressed.  A form of Hollywood code seems to keep even the most unscrupulous trash mongers from revealing certain stories.  For instance, during the recent Golden Globe awards, a celebrity tap-danced around formally coming out of the closet, even though it appears clear that most industry insiders have known for decades of the individual’s same-sex partnership.  Yet, this story has not been emblazoned on tabloids.  Whether the paparazzi make this decision out of self-preservation (because of the status of the star) or out of some unspoken code that allows humiliation of some but not others, it proves that even among the least principled reporters, some things are beyond the “rights” of the public to know.

Every public relations practitioner worth a consulting fee knows the driving force behind news headlines has less to do with news than it does attracting eyeballs, all too often at any cost.  Within that cost, it may be posited that the general media, in pursuing both audience and the “rights” of the world to know, may be complicit in the fostering of terrorism.  Hard news journalists perform no differently than celebrity stalkers in the sense that they go to where the most compelling images and stories reside.  For one, that may be a house in Bel Air; for another, a recently bombed hotel in Bahrain.  The reporter does not care who detonated the bomb or why, only that the story be told in a manner that attracts audience attention to the outlet that deposits in his or her bank account.  Certainly, accruals in social capital also contribute to the reasoning of a reporter to cover stories, but in either case, tragedy makes compelling news.

Fundamentally, and unfortunately, terrorists practice public relations.  In order to proactively manage stakeholder perceptions of their cause, the leaders must conduct some sort of public and newsworthy event.  If you represent a small organization, it tends to be very hard to get the press to pay attention to your emailed diatribes or sketchy video monologues, let alone press conferences.  But in creating a dramatic public spectacle, the group immediately commands media attention.  By the same token, the same holds true of lone gunmen who attack in public places.  While their long-term goals are dramatically different, the short- term need for attention remains precisely the same.  Further, each time the media covers these events in minute detail, the prospects and attractiveness of someone emulating the event increases.

So… back to complicity.  While I know it would be impossible to convince media in our infinitely connected world to forgo covering monumental acts of terror, imagine what things would be like today if the media had engaged in wartime communication policies similar to those during World War II.  Rather than communicating a message to the entire world with a suicide bomb, an extremist group would have only disrupted a single city.  Rather than rewarding the group with coverage, this tactic would garner far more localized value.  Arguably, a globally organized effort might have escalated attacks to the point of heightened security at our airports, but would we all be taking off our shoes because of a single fanatic with a failed pair of explosive sneakers?  Or would the group have managed international recognition necessary to recruit worldwide?

In an effort to be clear, the public should have expectations that the media provides reporting uncensored by government whim, but if paparazzi can make decisions to spare some “news” from headlines for the common good, it might be prudent for mainstream media to minimize the splash value when covering the work of violent extremists.  Otherwise, it seems they are complicit to some degree.