Monday, June 04, 2007

Seeing is Believing

The SITE Institute is back in the news again today as The New York Times reports "Iraqi Group Made Video Related to Abduction of 3 G.I.'s." Like a handful of other private agencies, SITE monitors jihadist websites and other forms of Internet communications and makes those materials available to media reporters and policy makers who subscribe to SITE services. Many question the objectivity of this would-be thinktank, however. For example, in the article "Private Jihad," The New Yorker provides a long profile piece about the institute's founder, Rita Katz, and discusses allegations that the group has released biased anti-Arab translations in the past and that publicity rather than analysis is their forte.

In addition to documenting the assailants planning and a jittery hand-held section that shows the actual operation taking place, the Times says that a large portion of the video is devoted to filming an inventory of items taken from the soldiers, including "credit cards, American cash and other currency; a handgun; a watch; and a metal cross." Much like videotapes shot for insurance purposes, it intends to make an authentic record of items, albeit for very different purposes.

Since I study the rhetoric of the Internet, I've been thinking a lot about abduction videos and the way that state governments and media outlets can no longer edit or suppress materials, even those that might exploit political or economic captives and compromise military or law enforcement objectives. Perhaps the Lindbergh baby case was the first time that there was a transnational appeal to the kidnappers for a captive's release in which the public participated in the drama, but wars in the Middle East have a long history of capturing prisoners and the politics of bargains of exchange that goes back to the time of the Crusades.

Given the horrific Internet beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, audiences will have an opportunity to see a different picture of his life and reporting work in the big-budget film A Mighty Heart. It should be a very different transmedia narrative from the ones that Henry Jenkins describes, although as one of my former students eplains, even at the time there were Internet narratives about fecundity associated with Pearl, as well as those of brutal decapitation.

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