You may have heard, by now, that a new ISIS propaganda video surfaced Wednesday evening that featured some footage of New York City’s Times Square, as well as clips from what appears to be the most ill-conceived Radio Shack commercial ever. The translation here is rough, but fairly accurate as far as I know:
I guess nobody told ISIS that Americans already wouldn’t be caught dead at TGI Friday’s, amirite? Slapping your frozen appetizers on little plates doesn’t make it “tapas,” fellas.
As news of the new video was breaking, viewers of MSNBC were denied the opportunity to see the footage in question, for what seemed like very important reasons. Here’s how Chuck Todd explained it at first:
NBC News has learned there’s a new ISIS video. Now, it makes reference to Times Square in New York city. There are no details or plans of an actual plot. The video shows footage of Times Square, and ISIS has used this video before. We realize just this hour, you heard from the White House just this hour who said there’s no credible threat to the homeland, and we’re not showing the video because this could be ISIS looking for a propaganda score. We wanted to let you know those headlines are out there, but again, we’re not showing this video for fear of playing into their propaganda.
A few minutes later, Todd reiterated his station’s decision not to air the footage, this time to avoid creating unnecessary panic. Then, this happened:
We have this report of ISIS putting out a video, we’re not showing it because I think it will create more unnecessary panic.
(28 Seconds Later)
Here it is. I know you haven’t seen it for the first time, so let’s show it.
Wait, what? In the space of 28 seconds, the prevention of unnecessary panic became less important than prepping a cable news guest? What happened to that propaganda score-denial strategy?
As it happens, I am in favor of (responsibly) showing it all, and saying it all, if the material meets the standards of news value, but this wasn’t the product of bold editorial judgment. In fact, disagree as I do, Chuck’s earlier refusal to air the footage was the bolder choice, rooted in weighty principle. In the intervening seconds, though, someone who is not Chuck Todd made the calculation that if other outlets did choose to play the video, viewers of MSNBC would likely change the channel. Although the result was, in my view, correct, this is another of many examples of the corrupting influence of profits and ratings on editorial judgment.
In general, I don’t think it is the job of journalists to shield the public from information in the name of manipulating someone else’s behavior, like not saying the names of mass murderers or denying someone the “glory” they seek; it is their job to present newsworthy information responsibly and in the public’s interest.
In this case, you can avoid “unnecessary panic” and a propaganda victory by placing the video in its proper context. Instead of praising the video for its “slickness,” you could explain to your audience that there are commonly-available video editing tools available nowadays that put this video somewhere between a Rick Santorum web ad and the latest from Smosh!. By refusing to show it, you’re just sending interested viewers on a treasure hunt for the video’s original presentation, without any context.
At the end of the day, of course, news outlets end up with the worst of both worlds, as competition forces them all to show the video, and their own instinct for sensationalism turns them away from measured and responsible reporting to pure hype. The power of propaganda is in what they aren’t telling you, and it is that particular void that the news media ought to aim to fill.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.