On terrorism, the media, and the Iraq war

The short version: A definition of terrorism, how the media magnifies terrorist acts, and why we only see the negative side of war on television.

I read about 10 books at a time. It’s my A.D.D. that keeps me from spending too much time on any one book but allows me to do a decent job keeping them all straight. Currently, one book that is getting a pretty good amount of my attention is Marcus J. Ranum’s The Myth of Homeland Security. I bought the book a few months back, and have been slow to read it because it starts off a little rough and feels very disjointed initially. As I’ve gotten deeper into the book, however, it has become more compelling. After taking 4 months to read the first 25% of the book, I’ve read the next 25% in about 6 days (remember, this interspersed with gaming, reading books from Al Franken, Bill O’Reilly, and Barbara Olsen, as well as working sudoku puzzles and reading the official 9/11 report in my spare time – so I should be slow getting through any of them).

In Chapter 8, Ranum (hereafter referred to by his well-known intarweb identity MJR) discusses the media and its effect on public perceptions. There is a lot of good information, but a couple of things really stand out to me. First, MJR calls terrorism what it is:

Terrorism is the attempt to manipulate the political process and public opinion through acts of violence and mass terror

Anyone who has read any of my rants on terrorism and how we as a nation have responded should know this matches pretty much my own view of terrorism. The terrorists actually don’t care about body counts so much as they want to maximize disruption. Consider the nightmare of travelling via air now (another topic I’ve ranted on) and the number of people put at risk because of over-reaching carry-on restrictions. The post-9/11 effect was significant but justifiable. The post English liquid-explosive scare is security theater.

Read the financial section of your newspaper and realize how much many airlines are still hurting from the 9/11 attacks. Think about all the restaurants closed down due to lost business after 9/11. And think about how every time there is a newly announced scare how many people stop travelling, stop going out to eat, stop shopping – in other words, stay at home, letting the mere threat of someone somewhere distant being hurt by terorrists disrupt their lives. MJR continues:

– and the members of the media are the greatest weapon in a terrorist’s arsenal because they are the gateway to public opinion. How terrorist attacks and terrorism are covered in the media will have a greater impact on the target population than the acts of terror themselves.

As he continues in the chapter, MJR discusses how the media covers stories. In particular, each news outlet seems to be looking for a more negative, more horrific, more awe or fear inspiring story than the other stations. Negative news tends to get the ratings and can carry an otherwise slow newsday longer, and members of the media are looking for the ratings, so they can get the advertising revenue higher viewership gets them.

When you think about that, you can understand why almost every story on the Iraq war is about the dead, the devastation, and the problems the Iraqi population suffer under. Americans generally don’t watch news for long when it is about US troops helping children and families injured by the latest suicide bomber, but declare 4 dead and BAM you’ve got a lead-in story.

This negative effect gets magnified even more when your political leaders start telling you how scared you should be. We go from FDR’s “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…” to our current leaders’ (and I’m not singling any one out, as many are pushing this problem) constant reminders of how vulnerable to the terrorists and how we need to give up our rights to be better protected. I’ve covered before the imbalance between spending to protect against terrorism vs spending on something like the flu. We spend over 120 times as much on anti-terrorism as on flu research and treatment, yet the flu is responsible for 36,000 deaths last year compared to 3000 deaths in 5 years from terrorism. And citizens accept that, because the media and our political leaders bemoan the great threat of terrorism and people don’t learn to think and research for themselves to see what the real threats are.

So if you want to complain about the negative news coverage of the war, complain about yourself because of your news habits (our love of dirty laundry), our political leaders for their telling us that we are right to be scared, and only lastly the media outlets themselves. It’s not the supposed liberal medai – it’s the speed with which we change channels when good news stays on too long.

That didn’t end up anything how I wanted it to. Too many distractions around me caused me to refocus too many times away from this post. I apologize for the rambling.

[tags]The definition of terrorism, Why the media shows the negatives of war[/tags]