Dec
01
1998

'Terrorists' Attack Ski Lodges, Not Doctors

Two stories involving politically motivated crimes received substantial--and substantially different--media attention in October.

On October 23, Dr. Barnett Slepian of Buffalo, New York, was shot by a sniper, apparently because the obstetrician was one of the few doctors in his area who performed abortions. On October 19, several unoccupied buildings at a Vail, Colorado, ski resort were burned to the ground, an apparent response to the resort's expansion plans, which will destroy wildlife habitat.

The most obvious difference between the two crimes is that one was intended to take a human life, while the other was targeted against property. The Slepian murder, part of a concerted effort to create a climate of fear among doctors who provide abortions, seems to be more clearly an example of terrorism, which is best defined as the use of violence against non-combatants for political ends. The property destruction at Vail more easily fits into the category of sabotage (although a glib reference to the "safety and convenience" of tourists in a statement claiming responsibility for the arson appeared to be an implicit threat).

Nevertheless, reporters seemed more ready to use the word "terrorism" in connection with Vail than with Buffalo. In more than 500 newspaper and broadcast stories on Nexis (as of October 28), reporters labeled Dr. Slepian's killing as "terrorist" or "terrorism" only six times (exclusive of quotes from sources). In contrast, reporters themselves labeled the arson attack at Vail ski resort "terrorist" or "terrorism" 55 times in some 300 Nexis stories.

Why are journalists 10 times more likely to give the label "terrorism" to a ski resort arson than to an anti-abortion murder? In part, it's because there's been a well-funded PR campaign to promote the idea of "eco-terrorism" as a looming threat. Self-styled "eco-terrorism" experts with ties to polluting industries were frequent sources in stories on the Vail arson, with very little discussion of their backgrounds.

For example, Ron Arnold, the executive director of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, was ubiquitous in the days after the fires (e.g., ABC World News Tonight, 10/22/98; USA Today, 10/23/98; New York Times, 10/24/98). These outlets didn't mention that Arnold is a former spokesperson for Dow and Union Carbide, or a one-time representative of Rev. Sun Myung Moon's political organization; nor did they mention that his group was launched with the financial support of such eco-unfriendly corporations as Exxon, DuPont, Georgia Pacific and Boise Cascade (Greenpeace Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations).

Arnold declared his approach to the environmental movement in a 1992 interview: "We're out to kill the fuckers. We're simply trying to eliminate them. Our goal is to eliminate environmentalism once and for all." (Common Ground, Fall/92; cited in David Helvarg's The War Against the Greens) Unsurprisingly, given this perspective, Arnold's book Eco-Terrorism treats peaceful sit-ins to protect trees as terrorist incidents.

Whether it's because they follow the lead of professional anti-environmentalists or their own inclinations, mainstream journalists haven't seemed that interested in violence when it has come from the other side of the environmental debate. Thus a fire bomb that failed to explode at a ranger station in Idaho's Targhee National Forest--apparently in response to the government's plans to protect grizzly bear habitat--didn't make the news outside of Idaho (Idaho Falls Post Register, 10/20/98). Even the killing of an anti-logging protester by a falling tree, after a logger declared, "Get out of here! Otherwise I'll fucking make sure I got a tree coming this way," didn't make much of a splash (Nation, 10/26/98).

Similarly, although abortion rights groups have been vocal in protesting the campaign of violence that has afflicted women's health clinics across the country, mainstream media have been slow to pick up on the pattern even as the death toll mounts (Village Voice, 11/10/98). And the word "terrorism" is still rarely brought into the discussion by journalists, no matter how appropriate that label may be.

Action Alert:If you see a local news outlet (local or national) using the word "terrorism" to refer to property destruction while failing to apply it to politically motivated attacks on people, please contact the outlet and ask why it doesn't apply a consistent standard. Send FAIR a copy of any correspondence.