After the Terrorists, the Worryists

Published November 15, 2001

The New Criterion

“You know things really are getting back to normal when cable news networks break into Osama bin Laden coverage to bring viewers a good old-fashioned car chase,” wrote Lisa de Moraes in the Washington Post of November 8. Actually, it was a truck chase — or the chasing of a truck by police cars in Dallas-Fort Worth: a stolen tractor-trailer with a load of lumber that had caught fire. The local Fox News affiliate sent its helicopter up to film it in spite of the FAA’s ban on news helicopters within a 22-mile radius of major metropolitan airports. In any case, the helicopter in Dallas wouldn’t have been much use for reporting on Mr. Bin Laden, who has been remarkably stingy with the sort of visuals that most viewers in the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area are at all likely to want to see.

Not to disagree with Miss De Moraes, but on another page of the same day’s paper, I thought I saw an even better sign of the return to normal: a headline reading “Television’s Talking Heads Lack Female Voices.” Like Fox News, the Washington Post was back to the really important things in its life. Paul Farhi’s story complained that the on-air “experts” consulted by the network news teams about the war in Afghanistan included few women, so that unsophisticated viewers might suppose that “Almost all of the people who seem to know anything are men.”

Of the 98 weekend “public affairs” programs whose guest lists were published in this newspaper in the past month, only 12 included a female “expert.” And that figure falls into the single digits when you exclude “To the Contrary With Bonnie Erbe,” a PBS show begun 10 years ago to address the lack of women on such programs. . .”It’s not like there aren’t any women out there,” says Barbara Cochran, a former CBS News bureau chief who heads the Radio and Television News Directors Association. But, she says, “you just have to make it a goal to find them.” News producers, she says, “need to spread [their] nets a little wider.”

Silly us, I guess, for ever thinking that the world had changed on September 11th

All the same, the media’s return to applying its moral micrometer to every instance of gender imbalance was rather reassuring after nearly two months during which they had been canvassing every hypothetical instance of horrible death that could strike at any moment. After the tragedy of terrorism came the farce of worryism. As I write, anthrax has killed four people and non-fatally infected thirteen others. Could this measly sum of mayhem have been what the terrorists were intending? Yet for over a month they, or the worryists who succeeded them, had succeeded in creating a nation of nervous nellies, afraid to open their mail or get on an airplane and browbeating their doctors for unnecessary prescriptions to Cipro. This time, the bad guys had hardly needed to exert themselves, let alone kill themselves. Of course, the press was, predictably, a big help.

For whoever it was that thought up the idea of sending little packets of anthrax germs through the mail to media and political folk of high visibility — or even low-visibility, as in the case of the poor picture editor at The Sun who was the first victim — was either very lucky or someone too knowledgeable about the way the American conversation is carried on to have been living among Afghan tribesman for the last dozen years or so. There have as yet been no smallpox infections. No other national monuments have been blown up or even damaged. No suspension bridges or nuclear power plants have been hit by suicide bombers — nor yet by non-suicide bombers. No shopping malls or ports of entry have been attacked or water supplies poisoned. No terrorist with a nuclear weapon in a suitcase has yet blown up even himself. And yet all of these things have been endlessly worried over in the media. Under the circumstances, a handful of anthrax cases was quite enough to create something close to hysteria.

Typical of the media’s response was that of Jim Hoagland, op ed columnist for the Washington Post who wrote that “Americans may be confused; stupid they are not. They see the panic that pushes Health Secretary Tommy Thompson to rush forward to reassure them before he knows what is going on or that causes Attorney General John Ashcroft to cry out that he knows something awful is about to happen to the country but he can’t tell the people how he knows it.” Well, Jim, what should Secretary Thompson have said before he knew what was going on? Nothing, perhaps? Or else that there was every reason to be alarmed? For better or worse, government officials are expected to pronounce on things all the time before they know what is going on. In such circumstances it is standard operating procedure to give the benefit of the doubt to reassurance. We had no reason for supposing that the first anthrax death was part of a massive terrorist push to kill Americans through the mail — as, indeed, it turned out not to be — and that was worth saying at the time.

As for Ashcroft’s warnings about imminent but unspecified terrorist attacks, it seems to me that it is precisely the “stupid” who would expect him, as Hoagland apparently does, to compromise the government’s sources of intelligence by telling people how he knows what he knows. I am of the party that thinks there should have been no warning, and, as it turns out, there was no need for it. But even if there had been, such a vague notification could hardly have been expected to have prevented any death or damage by increasing general vigilance. The chances of reducing vigilance by crying wolf were much greater. Unfortunately, it is because of the media that not relaying the warning, however vague, however likely to have been a deliberate decoy, appears not to have been an option for the attorney general. If something had happened, they would have called with one voice for his head.

Thus government officials were forced to waste their time “calming fears” raised largely by the media, or themselves issuing unnecessary warnings, because they were terrified of the tidal wave of bad publicity which would inevitably follow another terrorist incident about which they had advance knowledge but did not warn people. But of course they have advance knowledge of hundreds of things that will never happen. And I have no doubt that Al-Qaeda, knowing that their phone calls are being monitored, make sure they have advance knowledge of hundreds more. Who can pick from among this welter of possibilities the one that will actually come to pass? The next terrorist, or worryist, incident may already have happened anyway: it was the constant stream of unnecessary warnings that the enemies of this country and the media together ensured would dominate the national conversation during October and November.

Eventually, of course, people will get tired of putting themselves psychologically on guard against non-existent threats — which is when there will be another real act of terrorism. And when this happens, I predict there will be no advance warning. Naturally, this will generate more bad publicity for the government.

“Public hysteria — the contagion of panic spread by rumor and false alarms — is more dangerous than the real problem,” reported Don Oldenburg in the Washington Post, “and America is on the verge of it, mental health authorities say.”

Social psychologists who study crowd behavior have long known that beliefs, misinformation and fears can spread through a society the way a computer virus dominoes from one online system to the next.

“Rumor is a function of ambiguity and importance,” says Fredrick Koenig, a professor of social psychology at Tulane University who specializes in rumors. “Obviously this situation is important and critical. And the ambiguity is very big — we don’t know who it is, where it’s going to hit next or where it is coming from. The authorities don’t seem to understand very much about it, so we’re getting confusing messages. You have no structure in terms of answers: What to do? How should we react? What’s going to happen next? When you have this kind of vagueness, you get rumor behavior.”

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether or not reports like this should be included in “rumor behavior,” is there any actual informational content in this passage? Does anyone not know that rumor can spread quickly and can confuse and frighten people? Does Professor Koenig’s comment add anything to that pre-existing knowledge? No and no, I should say.

But the point seems to be that these rumors are different. Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times that “Before Sept. 11, it was easy enough for anyone with a little common sense to shrug off the nuttier rumors and conspiracy theories that flourish on the Net — the Area 51 UFO warnings, the Jimmy Hoffa sightings, the Hale-Bopp comet fantasies of the Heaven’s Gate cult — but these days, when things once thought unimaginable (the twin towers’ being brought down by hijacked airplanes, anthrax turning up in the mail) have come to pass, it’s harder to separate the hysterical from the plausible.” You can’t help wondering if it is really true that Miss Kakutani can’t tell the difference between a UFO sighting and a suicide bombing — it is possible — or if she just wants to rationalize the media’s near-hysteria over the anthrax scare, which the media then projected onto a much less terrified public.

After all, the story was both exciting in itself — does horrible death lurk beneath the phone bill and the Land’s End catalogue? — and an excuse for bashing the government, either for not doing enough or for doing too much. “The FBI’s Oct. 11 alert that another terrorist attack was possible ‘over the next several days’ shot public anxiety through the roof with its vagueness,” said another of Mr Oldenburg’s experts. Likewise, “the news that some 600 suspects had been detained helped to comfort a shellshocked public. . .but the added detail that 200 others were still at large did not.” Professor Koenig concurs. “Public panic is spreading because communications from the government seem confused and inconsistent,” he said. Chalsa Loo, a clinical psychologist added a recommendation “that the administration not push the vigilance button incessantly, as it has done.”

Meanwhile, the press itself has license to be as confused and inconsistent as it likes. On Wednesday, the Post reported that “U.S. officials said yesterday that a letter mailed in Pakistan to a U.S. consulate in the city of Lahore has tested positive for anthrax bacteria, providing possible evidence that the anthrax outbreak in the United States is of international rather than domestic origin.” On Thursday the Post reports that “The State Department said yesterday that a letter mailed in Pakistan to the U.S. consulate in Lahore had tested negative for anthrax bacteria,” helpfully adding for the benefit of the confused that “U.S. officials had said Tuesday that preliminary testing of the letter indicated it contained anthrax spores.”

On Friday the New York Times reported on its investigation of the FBI’s investigation of the anthrax attacks and confidently pronounced it wanting on the basis of the fact that, having questioned some of those who had been earlier questioned by agents, it found them doubtful about the quality of the questions they had been asked. The implication was clearly that the bumbling F.B.I. was letting the terrorist ring slip through their fingers. The next day, the Times quietly buried the story, headlined in the Washington Post, that investigators had concluded that the anthrax-mailer was an “angry male loner” in the twenty-second paragraph of a story which headlined the opinion of investigators that there was likely to have been another letter in Washington besides the one sent to Senator Daschle. Reams of hysterical hypothesizing about mass deaths became silently inoperative.

Reporting on the war itself was also rather confusing. When it was less than three weeks old, Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post was publicly referring to “the quagmire of Central Asia.” Frank Rich used his increasingly “partisan” New York Times column (to use a favorite word of his own) to proclaim that the Taliban were “proving Viet-Cong-like in their intractability.” Rich’s column was headed “How to Lose a War” and blasted the administration for not pouring more resources into fighting “bioterrorism” which, for a couple of weeks anyway, to Mr Rich anyway, looked like it might be a major offensive against this country by the same “intractable” Taliban. Rich also cited criticism of Bush from the right as evidence that the media was not infected by any “liberal” bias.

Thomas Ricks and Karen De Young wrote in the Washington Post that “Although there is little evidence — yet — that the U.S. approach is succeeding, officials at the Pentagon and the White House said yesterday that they are sticking with their original strategy. It isn’t time to think about ‘Plan B,’ a senior administration official said, because the administration is still at the beginning of implementing ‘Plan A.’”When you think about it, that really is pretty obvious, isn’t it? But the application of journalistic scrutiny to every phase of the campaign naturally increases the demand for news, which really means for more or less dramatic change. Of course the Pentagon weren’t going to Plan B. But if they were that would have been a real story. Failing that story, the next best thing is to print the denial that they are considering it.

Meanwhile, “outside the administration, experts on military affairs, foreign policy and Afghanistan are beginning to worry more openly. It is clear that “some of the upbeat, earlier assumptions have given way to more downbeat” assessments.” The latter is, of course, always an easy story to get. In addition to Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton administration official (who might be supposed to have his own reasons for questioning the new administration’s strategy) and an academic “expert,” Robert Pape, Ricks and De Young cite the Pakistani president, General Musharraf, without any mention that he had very good domestic reasons for saying — as indeed, he had been saying since the bombing started — that “military action must be brought to an end as soon as possible.”

Well, the job of journalists is to report things, and not the same things they reported yesterday (“American warplanes continued to pound the Taliban front lines today. . .”), so that constant testing of the waters for the slightest hint of change becomes their purpose in life. “Support Deepens for the Taliban, Refugees Report” writes Rajiv Chandrasekaran in the Washington Post. “U.S. Errors Fuel Sympathy.” How did Rajiv get this story. Why, he hung around Quetta, Pakistan for a few hours and spoke to the refugees himself. “‘The Americans said they would only target Osama bin Laden’s bases,’ said Abdul Mohammed, a shop owner who lives in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold. ‘But now they are killing ordinary Afghan people, so people think that the Afghan people are America’s enemy, not just the Taliban and bin Laden.’”

Thank you Abdul, for that immensely valuable piece of information, even though it can hardly be said to be surprising, coming from someone who has just been bombed out of his home. Yet out of such stuff comes that front page headline to suggest that the war is going badly. The first law of war news is that, where there is no news, news must nevertheless be reported, which is what gives us Abdul Mohammed and a great many more like him.

At some level, the media always know the importance of the things they don’t know. Elisabeth Bumiller and David E. Sanger pointed out in the New York Times that “if the war at home seems more fumbling and disorganized than the war in Afghanistan, there may be a simple explanation: Americans are watching each anthrax case live on television, where every contradictory story and bureaucratic misstep is on display, while they are getting the Pentagon’s sanitized version of the unseen battles half a world away.” But the Times editorialist didn’t get the message, mistaking the difference in coverage for a difference in reality.

America seems to be governed by two presidents. The George W. Bush who is commander in chief has been keeping the country united at a time when the war in Afghanistan has run into problems. But the George W. Bush running domestic policy is an entirely different person, less a leader than a narrowly focused politician. If America is to fight terrorism within its own borders and conquer the economic recession, the commander in chief is going to have to take control at home, too.

What the editorialist meant by “a narrowly focused politician” was that Bush was backing at the time the House Republicans’ insistence that airport baggage screeners be hired by private contractors rather than the federal government, as the Democrats were insisting. As usual, it was Bush who was condemned for his partisanship — that is, for believing that it was in the national interest for the government to be able to fire the relatively unskilled baggage screeners without going through the elaborate processes required for firing federal employees — and not the Democrats who were blocking any efforts to compromise.

Bush’s alleged “partisanship” thus became part of the received media opinion about how the war was going at home. So much so, indeed, that in its first notice on its website of the American Airlines crash in New York on November 12 and before there was any information beyond the bare news of the crash, the Washington Post wrote that

The crash took place at a time of unprecedented sensitivity for the airline industry, which has been reeling since four commercial jets were hijacked and crashed on Sept. 11.

The Senate unanimously passed a bill that would put all airline security in the hands of the federal government last month, but it was opposed by House GOP leaders who denounced it as an expansion of big government. They pushed through a rival bill, backed by President Bush, that would make the federal government responsible for airline security but would allow the president to hire either private or public employees to screen baggage. So far, Congress has not been able to reconcile the two bills, so nothing has passed.

Of course one wouldn’t want to go so far as to assert the existence of anything like “the liberal media” would one?

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