Selling Fear: Counterterrorism, the Media, and Public Opinion

Selling Fear: Counterterrorism, the Media, and Public Opinion

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While we’ve long known that the strategies of terrorism rely heavily on media coverage of attacks, Selling Fear is the first detailed look at the role played by media in counterterrorism—and the ways that, in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration manipulated coverage to maintain a climate of fear.

Drawing on in-depth analysis of counterterrorism in the years after 9/11—including the issuance of terror alerts and the decision to invade Iraq—the authors present a compelling case that the Bush administration hyped fear, while obscuring civil liberties abuses and concrete issues of preparedness. The media, meanwhile, largely abdicated its watchdog role, choosing to amplify the administration’s message while downplaying issues that might have called the administration’s statements and strategies into question. The book extends through Hurricane Katrina, and the more skeptical coverage that followed, then the first year of the Obama administration, when an increasingly partisan political environment presented the media, and the public, with new problems of reporting and interpretation.

Selling Fear is a hard-hitting analysis of the intertwined failures of government and media—and their costs to our nation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226567204
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/01/2011
Series: Chicago Studies in American Politics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Brigitte L. Nacos is a journalist and adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University. Yaeli Bloch-Elkon isassistant professor of political science and communications at Bar Ilan University, Israel. Robert Y. Shapiro is professor of political science at Columbia University.

Read an Excerpt

Selling Fear

Counterterrorism, the Media, and Public Opinion


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-56719-8

Chapter One

The News as Commodity, Public Good, and Political Manipulator

Everybody said it all day, a declaration of—of war, an act of war against the United States. Any number of politicians and commentators, us included, who were reminded that the last time there was an attack like this on the United States was Pearl Harbor which—which finally induced the United States to get fully involved in World War—in World War II. — Peter Jennings, ABC News anchor, September 11, 2001

Tuesday, September 11, 2001, began as a picture perfect day along the American East Coast. The sun was golden bright. The sky was blue and cloudless. On a clear day like this the view from the top of Manhattan's World Trade Center (WTC) over the metropolitan area was breathtakingly beautiful. At 8:48 a.m., when the workday began for thousands of men and women in the offices of the 110 stories of the Center's twin towers, a hijacked Boeing 767 crashed into the North Tower. Eighteen minutes later, a second Boeing 767 flew into the South Tower. Just before 10:00 a.m. the South Tower collapsed; 29 minutes later its twin crumbled. In between, at 9:40 a.m., a Boeing 757 flew into the Pentagon just outside of Washington, DC, and 30 minutes later another Boeing 757, probably on its way to Washington to destroy the U.S. Capitol, home of Congress, crashed to the ground in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. Within 82 minutes, the United States had suffered a series of synchronized attacks that added up to the most lethal strike in the history of terrorism.

Apart from eyewitnesses watching in shock and disbelief, hundreds of millions in America and abroad learned of the attacks from television, radio, or the Internet. They saw the horrific images of the World Trade Center, the symbol of America's financial and economic power, turning into a towering inferno before its towers collapsed. They saw a chunk of the Pentagon, the symbol of America's military might, in ruins. In the United States almost everyone followed the news of the attacks (National Geographic Society 2001; Nacos 2007) hour after hour, day after day. Evaluating the 9/11 TV coverage a few months later, one television critic concluded that "the first days after the terrorist attacks saw television at its near-best: solid coverage of the events, as well as a surfeit of political, social and historical background designed for an audience desperate to make sense out of the tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania" (Martin 2002). Indeed, in the hours and days after the strikes, anchors and correspondents, present and former government officials, historians, and other experts tried to explain what seemed beyond comprehension. There were efforts to provide historical context, assess the terror threat, and ponder sure or likely responses at home and abroad. In the process, the initial reporting touched on literally all major counterterrorism policies that the Bush administration and a compliant Congress would adopt in the following weeks, months, and years: the agreement that America was now at war; the need for reprisal against the Taliban, Afghanistan's rulers, because of their support for Osama bin Laden; the linking of Iraq to bin Laden and to the 9/11 attacks; the emphasis on security at the expense of civil liberties; and, last but not least, the outpouring of patriotism and calls for national unity and full support for the crisis-managing president and commander-in-chief.

It was striking that literally all of these frames were already present in the newscasts on September 11 itself. Even before President George W. Bush spoke of America's "war against terrorism" late that day, the attacks were cast as an act or acts of war—often compared to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. With the horrific images of the burning and collapsing World Trade Center towers and with the destroyed part of the Pentagon shown constantly on full or split screens, "Pearl Harbor" and "war" were invoked repeatedly to explain the enormity of the day, with the anchors of the major networks leading the way as the following excerpts from the nonstop coverage on 9/11 underscore:

TOM BROKAW, anchor, NBC News: Twenty-four hundred people were killed when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor 60 years ago this year. This attack on America, this terrorist war on America, could be more consequential in terms of lives lost. And it could be, as well, consequential in other ways in terms of getting this country involved around the world. Pearl Harbor, of course, triggered World War II, one of the epic events in the history of mankind. This is not expected to do just that, but it will change this country in—in so many ways.

DAN RATHER, anchor, CBS News: Terror hits home. In the history of our country, we had "Remember the Alamo," then "Remember the Maine" during the Spanish-American War. We had "Remember Pearl Harbor," and now, "Remember the twin towers."

PETER JENNINGS, anchor, ABC News: Everybody said it all day, a declaration of—of war, an act of war against the United States. Any number of politicians and commentators, us included, who were reminded that the last time there was an attack like this on the United States was Pearl Harbor.

As Peter Jennings noted, people inside and outside the media agreed and repeated over and over that the attacks amounted to an act of war, a declaration of war, the equivalent of Pearl Harbor—or worse. And there was much talk about the need for a military response, the necessity to go to war. Reporting from the Pentagon, ABC News correspondent John McWethy said, "There is a pervasive sense of anger among the military officers I've talked to today. They have mentioned again and again, Pearl Harbor ... They are ready to go to war. There is a sense of war here at the Pentagon." On the day of the attacks, anchors, correspondents, and reporters of the three networks mentioned the term "war" 57 times; "Pearl Harbor" 41 times, and "war zone" 11 times. In addition, experts, public officials, historians, and other sources used the term "war" a total of 29 times and "Pearl Harbor" 17 times.

Since Osama bin Laden was identified within a few hours after the attacks as the most likely mastermind by many seemingly authoritative sources, there was immediate talk of retribution against his Al Qaeda organization and its Taliban allies and hosts. An example was the following exchange between correspondent Andrea Mitchell and anchor Tom Brokaw during an early evening NBC News broadcasts on 9/11:

MITCHELL: Today, Afghanistan's Taliban leaders deny any involvement by Osama bin Laden. But as David Bloom alluded to earlier, intelligence officials and others are telling NBC tonight that they are 90% sure that bin Laden is involved. And, Tom, if that proves to be the case, there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the US will retaliate. Tom:

BROKAW: But the question is, how do they find Osama bin Laden, and who do they retaliate against?

MITCHELL: They cannot find Osama bin Laden. They have not been able to. He is number one on the most wanted list of the FBI. They have warned the Taliban that they will respond against Afghanistan's leaders. So the attack would be against Afghanistan.

Just as swiftly, there was also finger-pointing in the direction of Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Former CIA director James Woolsey used his appearance on ABC News to discuss the possible involvement of state sponsors, mentioning both Iraq and Iran. But it was clear that he had mostly Iraq in mind when he mentioned the Iraqi government's alleged links to Osama bin Laden. To that end he said that "it's not impossible that terrorist groups could work together with the government, that—the Iraqi government has been quite closely involved with a number of Sunni terrorist groups and—on some matters had contact with bin Laden." As guest of PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, former Senator David Boren singled out Iraq as well, when he stated:

I think obviously there are states that have reason to have strong feelings—Iraq, for example. We knew back during the Persian Gulf conflict—and that's when we had a lot of intelligence successes because a lot of efforts were broken up to mount terrorist attacks that Saddam Hussein among others was trying to recruit every terrorist organization in the world to serve his purpose. But I think now we're in a situation where we must respond so strongly and send such a very strong signal for the sake not only of our security but the stability and security of the world that nation states that condone terrorism, that harbor terrorists, let alone those that sponsor terrorism will pay a very heavy, heavy price.

Even the question of achieving greater security at the expense of civil liberties came up in the first hours after the strikes. Predicting that the attacks would inevitably bring about monumental changes, historian David McCullough said during a CNN special report, "I'm afraid that it will also mean a curtailing, trimming up some—maybe even eviscerating of the open society as we know it." This was also a topic when Linda Douglass of ABC News interviewed Senator Joe Biden:

DOUGLASS: Senator Biden, a couple of the senators I've spoken to and members I have spoken to and members of Congress as well are saying that we are now at war. Senator Shelby, who is the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, says we are now essentially at war, we have to be on a war footing, we—and Senator Hagel has said that we've got to start securing our borders, locking down our airports, revisiting the way we protect our public institutions. What about that?

SEN. BIDEN: I hope that's not true. I would say it another way. I would say we've come face to face with a new reality, a reality that we knew existed and knew was possible, a reality that has happened in varying degrees to other countries. But if, in fact, in order to respond to that reality we have to alter our civil liberties, change the way we function, then we've truly lost the war. The war is one that allows us—the way to conduct the war is to demonstrate our institutions are functioning, that your civil liberties, your civil rights, your ability to be free and walk and move around, in fact, are not fundamentally altered.

A few hours after the attacks, Dan Rather characterized September 11, 2001, as "a day that will, as was the case with Pearl Harbor, live in infamy in American history." Such weighty assessments put their stamp on the post-9/11 coverage. The news dramatized the terrorist strikes and likely responses by touting the war metaphor and foreshadowing, if not justifying, subsequent counterterrorism initiatives by the Bush administration, most notably, the Afghanistan War, the USA PATRIOT Act, and the Iraq War. While the need for protecting the homeland and preventing further terrorist strikes was implicit in the discussion of possible curbs on civil liberties, specific terrorism prevention and preparedness policies were not topics in the immediate coverage except for some tough remarks about possible failures in the intelligence community. This came up in a conversation between ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and security expert Vince Cannistraro:

JENNINGS: And this is, among other things, a desperate failure of intelligence in both the human and technical area. Am I right?

MR. CANNISTRARO: There's no question about it, Peter. It's a—it's a major intelligence failure. The inability to anticipate this kind of—of a terrorism event on U.S. soil. I—I think that they were focused on bin Laden in Afghanistan. They were focused on US facilities abroad, and I don't think they believed that bin Laden or a consortium of groups collaborating together had the capability or the willingness to do this kind of thing.

This particular exchange seemed to predict a robust scrutiny of the counterterrorism practices before the attacks and perhaps critical examinations of soon to be proposed and adopted post-9/11 counterterrorism policies. But there were stronger signs of a watchdog press unwilling to bark and instead to provide the stage for a strong rally around the flag. Almost immediately after the attacks, the news reflected what appeared to be the nation's collective, patriotic reflex. There were numerous promises and appeals for national unity and unequivocal support for the president. Like other networks, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS aired Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's full statement with the following promise of bipartisanship:

And we will speak with one voice to condemn these attacks, to comfort the victims and their families, to commit our full support to the effort to bring those responsible to justice. We, Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, stand strongly united behind the President and will work together to ensure that the full resources of the government are brought to bear in these efforts.

On CNN, former assistant FBI director James Kallstrom said, "we, as a country, as a nation, need to stand together." Referring to the ability of presidents to rally the nation around their leadership, historian Doris Kern Goodwin said during an NBC News broadcast, "what historians have noted is that whenever one of these crises occurs, a leader is able to make the people feel they belong to the country as one. Even the logo that you've been using all day, every time I see that, 'Attack on America,' I feel a sense of being an American."

And then there were outright signs that media personnel shared these emotions and joined the rally around the president. Nothing attested more to this than the emotions of Dan Rather who had the reputation of a tough-nosed newsman: Six days after the attacks, as guest on the Late Show with David Letterman, an emotional Rather shed tears as he discussed 9/11 and said, "George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions, and, you know, just as one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where."

Decision Makers, the Media, and Patriotism

Scholars tend to distinguish between news coverage of foreign or international politics and policies on the one hand and domestic politics and policies on the other. But as international interdependence proliferated on the heels of globalization, the domestic-international divide has increasingly become blurred when it comes to developments and issues related to trade, financial markets, health, environment, and other areas (Deese 1994; Schneider 1994; Huntington 1997). This convergence of the international and domestic realms is particularly salient with respect to transnational terrorism. What happened on September 11, 2001, was a case in point. The attacks occurred on U.S. soil, but they were masterminded and carried out by foreigners. Thus, the crisis triggered by the event was both domestic and international in nature and resulted in the most powerful patriotic "rally-around-the-flag" response since Pearl Harbor and the nation's entry into World War II. President Bush's public approval shot up more than 35 percentage points, from 51% before the attack to 90% less than two weeks later, reaching record high levels since presidential approval ratings were first measured in the 1930s.

While the initial rally was extraordinary in magnitude, a spontaneous outpouring of support was hardly surprising. After all, conventional wisdom has it that Americans line up behind their presidents in times of serious international crises. But contrary to this common assumption, not all such crises lead to greater presidential approval. John Mueller (1985 [1973], 209) established the following criteria for events that are likely to trigger rallies:

In general, a rally point must be associated with an event which (1) is international and (2) involves the United States and particularly the president directly; and it must be (3) specific, dramatic, and sharply focused. It must be international because only developments confronting the nation as a whole are likely to generate a rally-round-the-flag effect.


Excerpted from Selling Fear by BRIGITTE L. NACOS YAELI BLOCH-ELKON ROBERT Y. SHAPIRO Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Preface and Acknowledgments
Chapter 1. The News as Commodity, Public Good, and Political Manipulator Chapter 2. Selling Fear: The Not So Hidden Persuaders Chapter 3. Civil Liberties versus National Security Chapter 4. Selling the Iraq War Chapter 5. Preventing Attacks against the Homeland Chapter 6. Preparing for the Next Attack Chapter 7. Mass-Mediated Politics of Counterterrorism

Postscript. President Obama: Underselling Fear?

Notes References Index

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