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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Boston Phoenix Sparks a National Controversy

The Boston Phoenix created a nationwide controversy recently when it placed a link on its website to another website with a video propaganda piece which shows scenes of Daniel Pearl’s murder. The website, Prohosters.com, had been ordered by the FBI to remove the video from the website of its client, Ogrish.com.

Prohosters at first complied but later refused and put the video back online, standing up for freedom of speech and Ogrish.com, which publishes a variety of gruesome pictures from real life. A minor stir was created on the Internet—message boards were buzzing with conversations about the attempt at censorship by the FBI, and about the Phoenix’s courage or lack of good taste.

This is an ongoing and living story, with commentary being produced daily and articles almost as often. Dan Kennedy writes about his views on the controversy, and his involvement, in the most recent edition of the Boston Phoenix, June 14-20, 2002, in “Witness to an Execution.” Kennedy had earlier stated on WGBH’s Greater Boston that he was opposed to broadcasting the video. Then he goes on to write that he is “indirectly responsible for the Phoenix’s decision to link the video.”

“A little more than two weeks ago I came across a story on Wired.com regarding the FBI’s attempts to keep the video off the Web. Curious, I did a Google search to see if I could find the video—and tracked it down in just a couple of minutes. I passed it along to a few people at Greater Boston and, more to the point, the Phoenix, including editor Peter Kadzis, who forwarded it to [Stephen] Mindich.”

Stephen Mindich is the gutsy independent publisher of the Phoenix who, while wealthy and a minor media mogul himself, likes to walk his own path and dares to print what the corporate giants won’t.

Kevin Canfield, writing for the Hartford Courant, June 7, 2002, Boston Publisher Defends Photos, says “Stephen Mindich looks more like an aging promoter of classic rock concerts than a man who shook up the American media. But that’s exactly what Mindich did this week with his decision to present an audience of thousands with some of the grimmest images imaginable. Mindich is the 58-year-old publisher of the 118,000-circulation Boston Phoenix, and on Thursday his free weekly paper published photos taken from a video made by the killers of Daniel Pearl.

“Big deal? Well, it seems so. While the national and local media spent Thursday tying up Mindich’s phone line and inviting him to TV studios, radio talk shows buzzed with chatter about the Phoenix, a paper that once existed solely to let college students know what bands were coming to town.”

Mindich and the Phoenix are taking the heat from the corporate giants as a result. In an “Viewpoints” piece in Newsday, June 17, “Eye on the Media: Video of Pearl Served No Purpose,” Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, writes: “It filled me with disgust – the act, the video and the newspaper’s decision to help make it available. The act was a crime, deeply cruel, that was primarily intended to spread fear. The video is designed to make the killers’ handiwork public, which helps spread fear and which the killers presumably hope will recruit eager Islamists to their cause.

“Unless the world is considerably more depraved than I imagine, it can only backfire in this latter attempt. Surely even those opposed to U.S. policy and our way of life are still human enough to be repulsed by such a display. This video was already out there on the Internet for anyone determined enough to find it. All the Phoenix did was shine a light on it.”

“There is no question of the paper’s right to do so. Even if we wanted to censor the video, we could not.”

“I knew the moment I learned there was a video of Pearl’s murder that it would eventually be available on the Internet. But that alone doesn’t mean it’s important to watch it.”

There are many editorials that follow a similar vein. But, while Bowden, who has worked in the field of “media” (with U.S. military approval and cooperation) says “even if we wanted to censor the video, we could not” and that “all the Phoenix did was shine a light on it,” actually, the FBI did attempt to censor the video and all the Phoenix highlighted was that attempt at censorship. Bowden writes that the video is “repulsive” and will “backfire” in converting individuals to the killer’s cause “by such a display.” But the FBI was attempting to prevent “such a display” from being displayed, and, presuming Bowden is correct that the video will be a disincentive to becoming a terrorist, the FBI was then working to promote the good image of terrorists.

At CNN.com there is a lengthy video, “Chung: Pearl tape is propaganda” describing the edited video that Connie Chung had seen. But CNN will not carry the video or even provide a link. CNN’s position is that the public shouldn’t be allowed access, that Connie Chung will digest reality and spoon-feed the public the facts.

Not all journalists are condemning the Phoenix. Jeff Jacoby, in the Boston Globe, June 13, 2002, “Pearl Video Brings the Horror Home,” writes, “the video has been posted for weeks on a number of obscure Internet sites. It is reportedly a great hit in Saudi Arabia, the country that has supplied tens of thousands of recruits and vast financial subsidies to the cause of Islamist jihad. Last month CBS aired a brief portion of the video – though not its grisly ending – ‘so that you can see and judge for yourself,’ as Dan Rather put it, ‘the kind of propaganda terrorists are using in their war against the United States.’ But it only became available to the general American public last week, when The Boston Phoenix, a weekly newspaper, supplied a link to the video on its home page and published a photograph of Pearl’s severed head. A media firestorm ensued, with critics accusing the Phoenix of sensationalism, poor journalistic judgment, and insensitivity to Daniel Pearl’s family.”

While Dan Rather stated that the public could see and judge for themselves, they only aired edited segments of the video. Whatever an individual’s views are on viewing the Pearl video it is becoming more and more apparent that this controversy is about who should decide what the public can view—the FBI, the press, or the public themselves.

CNN, of all places, supported the Phoenix in a commentary piece, Jun. 08, 2002, entitled “Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl with a gun to his head.”

“Can anyone possibly recommend watching the video of Daniel Pearl’s murder? On it, the terrorists who abducted the Wall Street Journal reporter in Pakistan force him to declare his Jewish heritage and condemn the U.S. government; they then saw the head off his limp body and brandish it while a list of demands scrolls up the screen. It is awful, evil, dehumanizing. But does that mean it’s not also a part of history?”

But CNN went on to recognize the critics. “Many media critics called the link a cruel stunt with no public benefit. The Pearl family was unequivocal: Those who share the video, they said, “fall without shame into the terrorists’ plan.”

There are other undercurrents to this story besides gruesome curiosity and voyeurism. In Kevin Canfield’s article for the Hartford Courant he mentions that Mindich had an interview scheduled with MSNBC, but that the interview was cancelled.

In Dan Kennedy’s recent article he mentions that MSNBC.com columnist Jan Herman attempted to post the link to the video but that the attempt was derailed. “I had thought about it long and hard and felt it was my moral obligation. But it has since been taken down because (I’ve been informed) I am not to link to anything that MSNBC.com would not show itself. I don’t think anybody should be forced to watch this video, but I don’t see why it should be suppressed.”

The link between Mindich’s cancelled interview and Herman’s derailed attempts may be merely coincidence but is more likely corporate policy. With the likes of Disney (ABC), and Microsoft (MSNBC) supplying news and at the same time as trying to keep advertisers and consumers happy there are bound to be conflicts between the reporters and the public relations offices.

Jeff Jacoby, concluding his article, states, “And yet this video, depraved and evil as it is, does something for Daniel Pearl that has been done for virtually none of Al Qaeda’s other victims: It makes him real. It allows him to be seen as a flesh-and-blood human being, a guy with a face and a voice and a house in Encino. Countless Americans who never knew him in life will experience Pearl’s death as a sickening kick in the gut. His murder is an atrocity they will take personally—because they will have seen it with their own eyes.”

“It conveys with a force no words can match the undiluted malignancy, the sheer evil, of the enemy we are fighting. Yes, it is a horror. Yes, it is barbaric. But we are at war with barbarians, and what they did to Pearl, they would gladly do to any one of us. This is no time to be covering our eyes.”

See also: From the Internet: Controversy around Daniel Pearl’s execution video