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From Al-Jazeerah to CNN

President’s Forum event explores the relationship between terrorism and the media

In April of 1995, Americans were stunned by the Okalahoma City Bombing, at that time the worst act of terrorism ever committed on U.S. soil. But in the weeks following the attack, public opinion polls began to unearth a dramatic change in beliefs about the siege of the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, two years earlier. The assault and the resulting deaths had been one of the motivating factors of Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh. While the public had largely felt the Waco incidents settled before the bombing, opinion polls now showed that a strong majority were in favor of new Federal hearings on the subject.

This, in Columbia Professor Brigitte Nacos’ experience, is a perfect example of the powerful interaction between terrorist groups and the media. “McVeigh, she said, speaking at a President’s Forum event last night, “was responsible for a flip-flop in public opinion on Waco.

From the formation of Al-Qaeda in the late 1980s with a dedicated “media unit to the latest graphic videos in the modern War on Terror, the panelists at Monday’s President’s Forum — Nacos, former CNN reporter John Fielding and CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen — each offered their own interpretations on the relationship between terrorism and the media.

In Nacos’ opinion, the change in public opinion after Waco was no accident. Terrorists have become media-savvy. “They want to be treated like legitimate actors and they want recognition of their grievances, she said. “The question for the media is not only how much do you report but how do you report.

Fielding drew from his experiences covering the conflict in Northern Ireland, comparing “the brutality, depravation and the removal of very fundamental rights perpetrated by British Counterterrorism against members of the IRA with the current War on Terror. The incidents of “extraordinary rendition, or kidnapping terrorist suspects from their home countries for interrogation, “remind me of what I covered in Ireland 30 years before.

Berger, who gave Osama bin Laden his first television interview in 1997, was frank about the role of the terrorist groups in capturing attention through the mass media: “We live in a media age, he said. “Terrorists have a media strategy just like Madonna or Bill Gates. Terrorists know how to use the attention of the media to further their own ends. “Still, he said, emphasizing the importance of free expression, “Our job is not to make decisions for the audience; our job is to provide the information on which the audience makes decisions.