Winning: The Real Winner in the War on Terror

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September 13, 2006: Why is it so hard to determine who is winning the war on terror? Blame it on the mass media. Actually, you can also blame terrorism on the mass media. It works like this. When mass media was first invented (with the development of the steam press, which made cheap-enough-to-reach-a-mass-audience newspapers possible) in the mid 19th century, editors quickly learned that terrorism sells. Put another way, excitement sells, and the best way to excite readers is to scare them. Modern terrorism, based on using murderous mass attacks on the public to trigger a flurry of media coverage, came out of this. The 19th century anarchists, followed by the Bolsheviks (communists), several fascist movements (like the Nazis) and many others, all used this media proclivity to jump on terrorist acts in order to scare readers into buying more newspapers. The terrorists got the publicity and attention they wanted, which sometimes led to acquiring political power as well. It wasn't until television news became big that most newspapers stopped printing multiple editions each day. You could sell individuals several editions a day if you had a really hot story. Scary stories were, and remain, the best kind of stories.

But there are other ways to scare people, and build audiences, via terrorism. When reporting on counter-terror efforts, sharp editors know that they get more attention by reporting on how the counter-terror efforts are failing. Even if these efforts are not failing, it's good media business to find a negative angle and jump on it. Good news doesn't sell, or doesn't sell nearly as well as something that terrifies people. So how do you figure out if you are winning, say, the war on terror when you hear little about successes?

One bit of good news that is hard to put a negative spin on is the fact that there have been no more Islamic terrorist attacks in the United States since September 11, 2001. While many stories are put out slamming the inefficiency, ineptness and ineffectiveness of counter-terror efforts, there is still the embarrassing fact that, no matter what was done, there have been no more attacks.

Reporting the war on terror might have become a low priority effort if it were not for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The stories leading up to the invasion, and for the first week of fighting, were full of gloom and doom (for the invasion force). Scare people and you succeed in the media business, and Iraq provided ample opportunities to terrify.

But accuracy and honesty was sacrificed, as it usually is, in the pursuit of profit. We have a section here that covers who is winning what and why. There you will see that the mass media doing what it must (to survive economically) not only ignores good news in Iraq, but hides other important facts (that would detract from the economically essential scary headlines.)

The sad fact is that this situation is not unknown among journalists. Many of them have been complaining about it for over a century. No one has been able to come up with a solution. Good news doesn't sell. And the pursuit of scary headlines that do, has created a race to the bottom. It's probably not much consolation, but it wasn't always so bad. For example, see what happens when you report a great historical American victory, like the 1942 naval Battle of Midway, in the style of today's journalism. Pretty sad. There are similar "comic" bits like that (on the web) covering other World War II victories. At the time, those victories were reported quite differently. Journalism has changed a lot in sixty years. But in many ways journalism has not changed. Editors and reporters still know that they have to either scare people, or find another line of work.

 


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