The attorney general also made sure that the mainstream media had plenty of scary stuff about terrorists to cover in a dramatic fashion. For instance, Dettmer notes that, "The manner of the announcement by a live TV linkup for Ashcroft in Moscow and a star-studded news conference at the Justice Department added massive drama. With the surprising exception of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, aides and officials appeared determined to talk up the dirty-bomb threat" (2002, p. 47). With the terrorist alert standing at orange today, and riveted up to red tomorrow, who knows where it will be next Tuesday? Indeed, Ranum (2004) emphasizes that, "The media, of course, doesn't really want definitive answers to the problems of homeland security. In fact, the media is probably happier with unanswered or unanswerable questions since these make for better stories and provide a good forum for endless pundits to discuss endless questions endlessly" (p. 13). In this atmosphere, it is little wonder that the American public is rightfully jittery as a result of this type of hyperbolic media coverage of the war on terror and why they need to support the effort. The media's role in promoting and sustaining this culture of fear was made evident early on. According to Dettmer, "Ashcroft subsequently was criticized for hyping the radioactive menace by the White House (via off-the-record briefings to the press, of course). But the disclosure nonetheless fits into a recent pattern of dramatic statements from senior administration figures that have only added to widespread public alarm" (2002, p. 47).
Because the gatekeepers at the mainstream media have the ability to select what the public sees, hears and reads, and how this information is interpreted, presented and timed, it is apparent that the media is in a uniquely powerful position to shape public thoughts concerning the war on terror and the national government has taken advantage of this influence to justify massive expenditures of resources based on spurious but sensationalized reports of new terrorist threats. In this regard, Dettmer cites the role of the media thusly: "Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and FBI Director Robert Mueller all have made startling comments of late. All have endorsed the idea that it is inevitable terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons. The media, of course, add to the hype" (2002, p. 74).
Since September 11, 2001, if the national government has some bad news to downplay, it can always rely on the tactic of diverting public attention to the more immediate threat of Al Qaeda and its ilk at home and abroad, and the mainstream media is willing and even eager to cooperate in this process. It is therefore important for the American public to avoid the tendency to buy into this media coverage without consulting other sources that will provide them with the objective information and timely coverage from other media outlets that will help them formulate informed views about the war on terror and how this coverage affects them at the personal level. This need is further reinforced by Allan and Zelizer (2004) who suggest that the media's role in the war on terror has largely been responsible for shaping the shooting wars in Afghanistan and recently in Iraq to be part of the larger war on terror in order to sustain lagging public support. According to Allan and Zelizer, "Given the integration of the media industries' interests with those of the military industrial complex and the importance of the media's role in supporting the state's militarism, it is worth identifying the media-military-industrial complex as another factor behind the manufacture of the 'war' myth" (2004, pp. 45-46).
The research showed that the media's role in the war on terror has been profound and long-lasting. In fact, some observers have gone so far as to suggest that the mainstream media has relentlessly exploited the war on terror and an already nervous American public just to help increase their audiences. The research also showed that political leaders are acutely aware of the powerful influence the media wields in how its war on terror is presented. Taken together, it is clear that there are numerous survival and make-or-break considerations that are involved in the media's role in the war on terror. In the first place, American political leaders have their jobs and careers at stakes, making the favorable portrayal of the war on terror by the mainstream media an essential ingredient in their chances for reelection. In the second place, the survival of the American people is at stake, at least according to some mainstream media pundits. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in terms of its overall influence on the media's role in the war on terror, the already dubious future of mainstream media outlets such as newspapers and major televisions stations is being further threatened by declining audiences and profits, making the "ever-breaking story" more important than ever to their very survival and the ongoing war on terror provides this opportunity.
Allan, S. & Zelizer, B. (2004). Reporting war: Journalism in wartime. New York: Routledge.
Beale, S.S. (2006). The news media's influence on criminal justice policy: How market-driven news promotes punitiveness. William and Mary Law Review, 48(2), 397-399.
Billeaudeaux, A., Domke, D., Hutcheson, J.S. & Garland, P. (2003). Newspaper editorials follow lead of Bush administration. Newspaper Research Journal, 24(1), 166-167.
Crockatt, R. (2003). America embattled: September 11, anti-Americanism, and…