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Bush's Tactics Aid the Terrorists

Since 9/11, the White House has relentlessly manipulated public opinion by hyping the war on terror. But the main result is a terrified public -- which may have been the point all along.
 
 
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With the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks fast approaching, President Bush took to the podium Tuesday to speak to Americans about his administration's global war on terror.

Three things can be expected from Bush's speech, according to a new study by three Columbia University researchers: The media will repeat the president's remarks. Public fear of terrorism will increase. And the president's poll numbers will rise.

Those have been the effects of presidential pronouncements on terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to political scientists Brigitte Nacos, Yaeli Bloch-Elkon and Robert Shapiro, in a report prepared for this month's annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.

"These are interesting findings, and confirm what many of us had suspected," said Mark Juergensmeyer, director of Global and International Studies at U.C. Santa Barbara, who reviewed the research at the request of The Chronicle.

"This public panic benefits the terrorists whose work is made easier by an overactive government response that magnifies their efforts. In an odd way this puts the government and the terrorists in league with one another," he said. "The main loser, alas, is the terrified public."

The Columbia researchers looked at past scholarship on the subject and a new review of terror threats, official warnings and the coverage of both by the mass media since 2001, seeking to close what Nacos called a gap in research of how terrorists try to achieve their goals of fomenting fear, not only through attack but by threatening attack.

"The real new thing here is the mere threat, heavily mass mediated, achieves at least part of what actual terrorism achieves," Nacos said. "(Terrorists) want to intimidate, they want to spread fear and anxiety, and they want to take influence through the public on government officials."

Much of the Columbia team's research focused on the press -- especially the television media -- and how it reacted to threats of terrorism.

"Any actual threat message -- a tape by bin Laden or al-Zawahiri or an alert -- results in a great deal of messages in the media," Nacos said. "People comment on it, they analyze it ... the administration, experts in the field, including myself."

That approach magnifies the sense of threat by repetition, Nacos said. And while increases in terror alerts always made the top of the news on the three major networks, decreases tended to be buried and far less time was devoted to them -- 1 minute, 34 seconds on average for a national alert being lowered, compared with 5 minutes, 20 seconds when the alert was raised.

"The threat alone brings them a great deal of media coverage, and the public takes notice -- we've shown that the threat perception by the public increases," Nacos said.

Officials in government and law enforcement also can have an effect on the public's perception of terror risk when their statements are magnified by the media.

In February 2003, for example, the percentage of people saying they were very worried about a terror attack "soon" stood at 18 percent. One month later, after the alert had been raised and lowered, it stood at 34 percent.

The official with the greatest ability to shift opinion on terrorism, the researchers found, is Bush, whose statements in the media about terrorism correlated highly with increases in the public's perception of terrorism as a major national problem -- and with increases in his approval ratings.

At the beginning of July 2002, for example, approval of the president's handling of terrorism was around 79 percent. After television coverage of one statement by Bush and seven public statements by administration officials about the terrorist threat, the president's rating rose to 83 percent.

In June 2004, approval for the president's handling of terrorism had fallen to 50 percent. One month later, after an increase in television coverage of Bush's comments on terrorism, that number had risen to 57 percent.

It's not clear that Bush, whose ratings have slipped to about 40 percent in national polls, will receive a bounce from his most recent remarks on terrorism, Nacos said -- past research suggests that such a bounce is more likely to come to presidents flying high in the polls than presidents with numbers in the doldrums. But the past pattern is clear.

"To me this is the most novel and interesting of the findings," said Larry Beutler, director of the National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism in Palo Alto, who reviewed the Columbia team's research. "There are findings suggesting that the administration's use of the alert system increased inordinately before the election and each time it did, Bush's numbers went up about 5 percent."

The research is also a "damning indictment of the media's bloodlust," said Matthew T. Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., who also reviewed the Columbia research.

"When you have media organs viewing fear-mongering as a payday, senior politicians seeing fear-mongering as sound political strategy, and terrorists considering fear-mongering as a victory unto itself, where are citizens expected to find a voice of reason?"

The Columbia study does not conclude the White House intentionally used terror alerts to influence the president's popularity.

But it is unlikely the White House is ignorant of the effect, said Nacos, who added that former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge has complained publicly that he was sometimes pushed to raise the threat level on the basis of flimsy intelligence.

"Our data only shows these connections exist, these correlations exist," she said. "If anything, it should alert political players to be very careful with this."

For starters, Nacos said, politicians could reconsider when and how they warn the public of terror threats, especially when that warning is vague, and stop responding to bin Laden tapes, as many have in the past. "They magnify the role of this guy," she said. "They help him to be a world figure."

The press, too, could be more reflective in its coverage of terror threats, Nacos said, avoiding the kind of continuous coverage without new details that typified, for example, the recent arrest in the JonBenet Ramsey case.

"I really think that all of these actors have to think of what they're doing," she said. "Nobody means to do this, but one has to think about what they're doing."