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Terrorism by the media

Jack Balshaw 6/12/02

Whenever it seems the public might be interested in any government action other than the "war" on terror, there suddenly arise reports of potential terrorist threats. Mostly with the qualification, " maybe not this week, maybe not this month, maybe not even this year, but eventually …"

This gives the media free rein to introduce new experts to speculate what the new threat could mean to people, communities, industries, the future, etc. And around we go again not only spreading but promoting fear like it was soap or cereal. Keep this in mind, media reporting is what gives terrorism a presence, a hold on our minds.

Yesterday was the nine month aniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. Has anyone noticed that despite all the warnings, alerts and fear mongering, there hasn't been even one terrorist incident? Let's look at terrorism a bit more closley. Here's one definition of terrorism.

"Terrorism is theater. Its real targets are not the innocent victims but the spectators. The goal of terrorism is not to deplete the ranks of an army, to destroy the enemy's weapons, or to capture a military objective. It seeks an impact on the attitudes, and so it must be spectacular. It relies on drama, it thrives on attention, it carries within it the seeds of contagion." From Arab and Jew by David Shipler 1986

Now think of how small a hold terrorism would have on us after nine months without any attacks if the media, fed by government news releases, hadn't been constantly promoting fear.

The news media, along with government agencies, is the best friend the terrorists have had in multiplying the impact of their one attack. The continuous reporting of nebulus, unsubstantiated, Chicken Little - the sky is falling, cries of "Wolf" reports from the government has fullfilled the terrorists main goal to - impact on the spectators attitudes.

Oh, but we're to blame also. If we hadn't received all these reports, some would be saying, "How do I decide if it's safe to walk my dog if I don't have access to all possible threats?".

The reporting of terrorism has become a growth industry. It fills the cable news channels, it is dominent on the traditional network news shows, and it has the biggest headlines in the daily papers. It sells product and is inexpensive to distribute. I believe if the same amount of attention were directed at injuries from falling tree branches, we would all be afraid to walk beneath trees. (A tree may not fall on you today or tomorrow or maybe not this year, but…..)

This may be one time when I think it's a good thing that younger people seem to have little interest in news. We (older ones) lament that the 18 to 34 year olds don't read newspapers and are more interested in sitcoms and sports than news or education on the TV. But, perhaps their inattention will eventually cause the media to cease trying to find a "terrorism" angle to the major news of the day.

In the meantime however, significant resources are being directed to the fruitless pursuit of any possible terrorism issue. All the money being spent in this pursuit isn't available to be spent on other domestic issues. Police overtime is draining city treasuries, security checks are adding costs to many products, and the fear of terrorism is keeping many travelers and vacationers home. This latter issue further impacts the travel, hotel and restaurant industries. We'll eventually see the impact of these costs on the total economy.

Our normal national political process has been totally disrupted by the diversion of attention from legislation to terrorism. "Don't question the President while there is a war on." "How long will this war last?" "I don't know, maybe forever." Is this the end of public participation in government?

A free media is important to democracy. A hysterical media is its enemy.


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