By Murtaza Hussain
Apr 28, 2013
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and while a massive police manhunt continued for the suspected perpetrator, 19 year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, NBC journalist David Gregory would say to American television viewers: "This is a new state of terror the country has to get used to." Given the breathlessly hyperbolic coverage provided by NBC, CNN and many other cable news organisations during the search for Tsarnaev, it is by no means surprising to hear Gregory make such a comment. Whether in the context of entertainment or news media (a distinction which has been increasingly blurred by cable organisations) fear and hysteria always makes for compelling if counter-informative viewing.
However, it nonetheless bears asking the question in response to Gregory's assertion: why should Americans - whose country possesses the most powerful military in human history and who spend more on defence than the next 13 countries combined - have to resign themselves to living in "a state of terror"? Can the actions of a disaffected teenage boy and his older brother, however heinous, be enough to terrorise a military superpower into paralysis and compel Americans to relinquish their Constitutionally-enshrined rights and freedoms?
From the outset, the establishment media's coverage of the Boston bombing and its aftermath has been marked by a combination of hysteria and ineptitude. From the initial reports of police seeking a "dark-skinned male" to wholly erroneous and still-unexplained Day One reporting which claimed that a suspect had actually been detained, the average viewer of Fox, CBS or MSNBC would arguably be far less informed from their coverage than they would have been by completely abstaining from television news during the crisis.
After several hours of reporting to their millions of credulous viewers important "facts" which later turned out to be little more than unsubstantiated rumours, CNN's Chris Cuomo would admit: "Ok. Now, that would be, you know, we don't know what's right or not at this point." One would hope for such forthcoming honesty from a major news organisation before the subsequent reporting of a major story instead of afterwards, but unfortunately the reverse proved to be true.
While the fast-paced reporting of rumours, hyperbole and innuendo serves very little to the cause of informing and enlightening the millions who rely on cable news for information, it undoubtedly does well at generating widespread fear and hysteria. This is less the result of a grand conspiracy than of simple market economics. Throughout the crisis, ratings at major cable news stations surged - shooting up 194 percent from normal averages at CNN while also posting smaller yet still materially-significant gains at Fox News and MSNBC.
For an advertisement-driven industry where these ratings are the standard bearer of success and financial viability, the Boston bombings provided a major boost. In this light, the impetus to avoid salacious rumour-mongering and speculation - something which would inevitably trigger great fear in a viewing audience devoid of its own means of gauging events - markedly diminishes. Fear and uncertainty may be bad for the populace at large as well as for the functioning of a healthy democracy, but they are undeniably good at generating bigger and more lucrative audiences for news media. In an oligarchic media landscape where both barriers to entry and competitive pressure among existing players are high, cable news outlets have every reason to keep pumping up the hysteria if it means greater viewership. As their hyperbolic coverage of the Boston crisis has shown, they have little hesitance about doing this when the opportunity arises.
Being a victim in America
While violent terrorism is undoubtedly real, it is worth restating a few basic statistical facts about the level of threat it poses to the average American. In their 2010 report for Foreign Affairs, John Mueller and Mark G Stewart constructed a comparative analysis of terrorism compared to other potential causes of death to Americans. What the results showed was that the average American on an annual basis is more likely to be killed by one of their home appliances, drowning in a bathtub, or in a car accident involving a deer, than they are to be killed in a terrorist attack. This is to say nothing of the threat of ordinary violent crime, which poses a greater threat by several orders of magnitude than that of terrorist violence and continues to churn on at an industrial scale throughout the country.
Nevertheless, due in large part to unbalanced and sensationalist media coverage, Americans have been more willing to part with their rights and freedoms in response to perceived threats from terrorism than they have from violent crime - the latter of which receives proportionately scant media attention. Viewed in this light it is easier to reconcile how tens of thousands of gun deaths a year can be taken in stride as "the price of freedom", while a single bombing can prompt calls for the suspension of the once-cherished civil liberties granted to citizens by the American Constitution.
Terrorism by media
Aside from the millions of Americans who are regularly victimised by a media which they trust to provide them with information - but which instead manipulates their deepest existential fears for financial gain - the aftermath of the Boston bombing coverage produced another, unique, type of media-victim. On April 18, 17 year-old high-school student Salah Barhoum woke up to find his image plastered on the front page of the New York Post along with the suggestion that he was in fact the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing.
The directionless chaos and hysteria provoked by the media's designation of an amorphous "brown-skinned suspect" had led internet forums to circulate Barhoum's own brown-skinned visage as a potential threat - something which the Post had no qualms about reporting as fact in order to gain a scoop on a major story. The allegation turned out to be completely unfounded, as Barhoum was merely an innocent bystander whom Boston Police had never viewed as a suspect in the crime; but the damage to him was nevertheless done.
Despite acknowledging his innocence, the Post refused to apologise for the reputational damage and potential danger they have put Barhoum in by falsely identifying him as the perpetrator of a crime which provoked the anger and fear of an entire country. In his accounting of the days after being falsely implicated by a major news organisation, Barhoum described running home from school in terror after seeing a man whom he thought was tailing him from a nearby car. In his own words he would say of his future: "I'm going to be scared going to school... workwise, my family, everything is going to be scary." In many ways, he is another individual whose life has been terrorised by a major media outlet, except that due to their actions his fears today are far more well-founded.
Stoking the flames
The American citizenry today is being compelled to give up their sacred rights and freedoms over a threat which is more remote than that which emanates from their own home furniture.
In a rational assessment of future policies, the problem of terrorist violence must be addressed in a manner which is both sober and reflective of the true level of threat it poses. This however will continue to be impossible when a pliable public is subject to the unscrupulous 24/7 noise machine which passes for news media today. The same establishment news organisations which peddled the hype and lies that convinced millions of Americans to fight a ruinous war against Iraq on utterly false pretenses are today attempting to convince them to submit to more government surveillance and further diminishment of their civil liberties.
While there are many culprits, the lion's share of the blame must go to the cable news networks upon whom millions of Americans today rely for up-to-date and reliable information. The dismal and negligent coverage of the Boston bombing and its aftermath may perhaps be looked at in future as the "Tobacco moment" for cable news.
Until Americans either demand tangible improvement or definitively tune-out from these organisations, the country will see nothing but a heightening of the deleterious fear and hysteria they consciously help to provoke.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics.