July 17, 2006
What I'm saying is that there has been fear-mongering, the likes of which we have not seen in a long time in this country. It happened early in the cold war. We got accustomed to it, we learned to live with it, we learned to understand what it was about and get in proportion. We haven't done that yet with terrorism.
And this administration is really capitalizing on it and using it for its political advantage. No question, the academic testing shows, the empirical evidence shows, that when people are frightened, they tend to go to these authority figures, they tend to become more conservative. So it's paid off for them politically to do this. -- John Dean, author of "Conservatives Without Conscience," on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann," July 10, 2006.
On Monday morning, the 11th of July, an historic townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side exploded in a spectacular fireball. It turned out that the cause was natural gas -- the doctor who owned the building was apparently trying to kill himself. But that's not what many New Yorkers thought at first. They were convinced it was terrorism.
One of them was CNN's famed evening talker Larry King, who was staying nearby and was thus one of the first journalists of any kind to arrive at the flaming rubble. That morning he said:
And I heard the loudest sound I've ever heard in my life, an incredible boom, obviously an explosion, I thought it was a bomb. First thing you think of is 9/11 naturally.
Naturally, the first thing that Larry King thought of was 9/11.
After all, he watches CNN.
So do we. And while we couldn't agree more with John Dean, that the climate of overhyped fear-mongering begins at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there's also more to the equation than just the actions of the Bush administration. Anyone who watches TV news or reads a newspaper -- and who's seen street thugs elevated into global terrorists, or Internet chatter become an "intricate plot" -- knows what we're taking about.
And here's the thing, no matter what we do or say, the current crew in the White House will be whipping up these "terror threats," to paper over mistakes or to justify new military adventures, between now and January 2009. We can't stop them from throwing it out there.
But the media and its role as a super-enabler -- that's a different story. In theory, a news outlet would act as a filter, determining what terrorism stories are important and which ones carry the strong whiff of baloney. Instead, since Sept. 11, 2001, the media has become a giant amplifier, not a filter. When the subject is "the war on terror," no development is too small for wall-to-wall "breaking news" coverage, or a front-page scoop.
In the initial months after 9/11, that made sense. Over time, however, news directors and editors received plenty of evidence that not everything in what was unanimously called "the war on terror" was what it was cracked up to be.
As a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, I learned that lesson early -- and painfully. I wrote a front-page article on Sept. 19, 2001, with the screaming headline: DOCTOR; TERRORIST?; FBI SUSPECTS A YOUNG, WELL-LIKED RADIOLOGIST IN TEXAS. Residents were stunned that a mild-mannered doctor had been plucked from their suburban community -- and in hindsight they should have been. As Human Rights Watch later reported:
A medical doctor doing his residency in San Antonio, Texas, [Albader] al-Hazmi had no previous criminal record or interaction with the FBI. The government based its arrest of al-Hazmi on the fact that he shared the last name of one of the hijackers and had been in phone contact with someone at the Saudi Arabian Embassy with the last name "bin Laden" (which is a common Arabic name). After the government arrested al-Hazmi, agents searched his house for twelve hours, turning his house "upside down," with little regard for his wife and young children. He was detained for two weeks in jails in Texas and New York before being released. He never testified before a grand jury or court.
So many reports about "second waves" and Arabic men trying to board planes or trains with box-cutters or wads of cash -- all, or almost all, total bunk. Tourism camcorder clips became "terrorist surveillance videos." Even "successful" terror cases, like this one in Detroit, were later thrown out or were overblown by prosecutors.
Then came the color-coded terror alert levels -- the ultimate "dog that did not bark." There has never been an orange-level alert since Bush was successfully re-elected in November 2004 -- not one. Also, new (and usually debunked) terror threats constantly popped up on bad news days for George W. Bush, as this piece we wrote last October shows.
Then, Bush's political advisor Karl Rove came under a legal cloud, and a lot of the real scare stuff seemed to suddenly disappear, even when the president's approval rating plunged. Last month, Rove was apparently cleared in the CIA leak probe, and in an amazing coincidence "the war on terror" was back with a vengeance, with a flurry of new arrests and new plots. And just like "Pirates of the Caribbean," the media seemed to fall for the sequel even more than the original.
Last month, CNN went virtually wall-to-wall for an entire day with the arrest of seven young men in Miami, in a story that was frequently billed as "the plot to blow up the Sears Tower," even though, as Newsweek later reported about the ridiculous outfit known as the Seas of David:
Yet at the same time federal officials were promoting the case as another breakthrough in the terror war, they admitted it was unclear just how real a threat the men posed. The Feds conceded that the group had no weapons and no detailed plan to carry out an attack. There is no evidence that the men were in contact with actual members of Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
We hoped this nonsensical story was a one-day wonder when we left for a week-and-a-half of vacation, but when we returned, there was a new subject of cable overkill, now a "plot to flood New York's financial district." Instead of a flood, here's some cold water:
"The so-called New York tunnel plot was a result of discussions held on an open Jihadi web site," said Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer and contributor to American Conservative magazine, in a late Friday afternoon conversation. Although Giraldi acknowledges that the persons involved -- "three of whom have already been arrested in Lebanon and elsewhere -- are indeed extremists," their online chatter is considerably overblown by allegations of an actual plot.
In fact, the terror hunt is so cranked up these days that it's getting harder to call off the dogs once they're sent out. Our sense yesterday was that the New York townhouse explosion was a bit overplayed -- after all, no one was killed -- but that it was hard for CNN & Co. to shift gears even after terrorism had been ruled out.
So why does the media fall for bogus or misleading terror stories, Charlie-Brown-football-like, time after time? One answer is clearly: It works. The aftermath of 9/11 was the high water mark for cable news in terms of ratings, and it's hard to let go of that. A newspaper like the New York Daily News, which broke the vague "financial district plot" recently, was surely glad to "scoop" the New York Times on the terror beat. What's more, there is the acceptance of the notion that combating terrorism is indeed "a war," which merits amped up "war coverage."
But news outlets have another. more important role: To be responsible. Terror fears have warped the American political debate, from clearing the way for an unjust war in Iraq to papering over White House scandals. That type of influence is something that goes well beyond ratings. CNN would also get lots more viewers if Carol Costello or Anderson Cooper read the news in the buff, but that wouldn't be very appropriate. Scaring the American public needlessly, we'd argue, is a much greater sin.
In fact, although they seem not to realize it, but TV execs and top editors have the power to cancel the version of "The Fear Factor" that's broadcast out of Washington, with a few easy moves. Here's how:
- You set the agenda, and not the White House. You wouldn't tell your plumber how to fix your toilet. So why do the world's best newsmen let politicians tell them how to cover the news? -- it's baffling. When the government announces "a major terror arrest," it's impossible not to rush in at first with guns blazing, and that's fine. But an hour or so into it, take a deep breath, and do your own analysis. When the government says that drifters with no weapons or plans were going to blow up the Sears Tower, does it pass the smell test? If it doesn't, it's just as easy to run away from a story -- or at least downgrade it to its rightful tiny hole at the top of the hour -- as to rush into it headlong.
- Define your own terms. Again, news directors are the ones who need to decide whether the terror struggle is truly "a war," or something else, or whether online chatter in an Arab country about New York's tunnels is really "a plot." There's good precedent for this. Over time, many editors have agreed that in the abortion debate, the terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are politically loaded bombs, and not the language of news or accuracy. And so many papers shun these terms. It was easy when citizen groups were involved, so why can't the government get the same treatment.
- Talk to each other. Shocking, we know. But these are desperate times for America, and desperate times require some desperate measures. Imagine if the news chiefs of CNN and MSNBC and Fox -- OK, Fox is probably out -- had a hotline for sharing their initial impression of terror stories. Imagine if the CNN guy said, "I kinda of think this Miami story is baloney, myself," and if MSNBC agreed. At the least, we'd love to see this: An emergency summit on covering terrorism. Gather in a big meeting hall, call in the C-SPAN cameras, and work toward some notion of when terror is real, and when it is manufactured. Critics would scream "collusion," but would it really be collusion or would it be serving democracy, journalism's highest calling?
- Prioritize the issues of the 21st Century. Yes, terrorism is a significant story. But where does it rank against global warming, dwindling fossil fuel supplies, the rise of China and India, or the disappearance of the middle class here in America? You -- and not Karl Rove -- need to make these decisions.
The media is indeed the most powerful tool of our time. But right now, it's being manipulated by outside forces. Jazzman Gil Scott-Heron said famously, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised."
But maybe the real American revolutiion will not be televising.