Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



May 1, 1986 -- Give me a break, somebody. Am I living on another planet? In another time? Maybe Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick can collaborate on a movie starring the PLOís ruling council and the KGBís disinformation section. There might also be roles for the Bulgarians and Abu Nidal.

Let me try to put this fractured introduction into perspective: Lately I keep hearing that itís not terrorism, nor concerns over safety, thatís keeping American tourists away from Europe and the Middle East. No way. The villain, I am told, is the sensationalist and circulation-greedy U.S. press.

Blaming the medium for the message is certainly not a new phenomenon, as many a bearer of bad news in ancient Greece discovered. But this is 1986, and people should have learned better. At timesómost timesóblaming the press for the news they report is as ludicrous as it is self-serving.

These observations should not be construed as a whitewash of the Fourth Estate. There are complex issues that deserve debate and scrutiny: a reporterís obligations regarding sources in a criminal case, where to draw the line on pornography, the influence of advertising on news reporting. Such questions properly concern a free and thoughtful society.

Pretending that tragedy would just go away if the press overlooked it is another matter. Let me review some of those recent and tragic events before I return to the core of my irritation. Since last June, the civilized world has been subjected to the following: the hijacking of TWA 847, airport bombings in Frankfurt and Tokyo, incidents at airline ticket offices in several cities, the inflight destruction of an Air-India jumbo jet, the taking of the Achille Lauro, the EgyptAir calamity in Malta, the massacres in Rome and Vienna. Most of these "incidents" 9an unforgivable and overused euphemism) involved the loss of innocent life, from large numbers down to a few travelers unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

But these incidents, I am now told, would have been largely ignored and soon forgotten if the media hadnít exaggerated, overplayed and sensationalized them. Journalists rather than terrorists are being blamed for the fact that North Americans wonít visit Europe in record numbers again this year.

Where am I hearing such things? Am I making it all up? Let me recount a few examples:

Iím at a New York luncheon hosted by foreign government tourism executives. The topic of the day: What to do about the negative impact of terrorism on tourism. A valid subject of discussion, but the debate involves not terrorism, as advertised, but how to control an "irresponsible: consumer press. (The travel industry trade journalists are perceived as more compliant.)

Strangely, there is hardly any acknowledgement that these terrorist incidents have taken place, that blood has been shed. One trade magazine editor even stands up to say that travel agents know Europe is "safe," but with the consumer press harping on and on, they canít convince their clients.

The discussion expands to include the risk of taking travel editors and trade journalists to see for themselves that a destination is safe, or that an airport is secure. But, what if something happens while they are there? Or thereís an "incident" the next day? New York City, all agree, is a lot more dangerous than the supposed terrorist targets. Is there any point in throwing advertising and public relations dollars at the problem? The press doesnít bother to present a fair picture of developments in Haiti, the Philippines or South Africa.

Not surprisingly, the New York Times takes a pounding: itís never balanced in its coverage of South Africa. Most in the room agree that such publications should lighten up, and stop "overexaggerating" (so help me!). I begin to think Iím having lunch with Lewis Carroll. Certainly this isnít the real world we are discussing.

Moving on, in the March issue of this magazine we quoted a travel agent as saying that the big boycott of Europe "is largely a media event." Let us wish that it were so. And recently the CEO of a cruise line wrote to me that "the prospects of European tourism this year have been dealt a severe blow by the trade and consumer media coverage of terrorist incidents." A freelancer recently wrote us suggesting a story on how Mediterranean shipping companies are "combating damage done by the media."

Hey, wait a minute: When was the last time a reported threw a bomb into a crowd of innocent people?

Granted, European tourism interests are suffering unduly from the outrages of a few deranged psychopaths or political fanatics. And just as certainly, the odds against being victimized by a terrorist in Europe remain too remote to calculate. And, by the way, a quick survey of Frequent Flyer staff members revealed that virtually all were planning trips to Europe this year. "It will be great to ride the Paris metro again without being surrounded by Americans," one editor observed.

Europe has an outstanding product to offer, and a good story to tell. They should get on with telling it, rather than wishing for a passiveóor controlledópress in the United States. After all, what would people here do if they didnít have the press to kick around?

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.