Author Archive

Mortenson Scandal

Three Cups of Tea, the book detailing Greg Mortenson’s happenstance decent into the world of charity and philanthropy, has sold over four million copies. As required reading for U.S. soldiers on their way to Afghanistan, and for plenty students in high school and college, its message about the importance of education in remote areas has made its way into many brains. Unlike many politicians and celebrities, the portrait of Mortenson presented in the book seems remarkably innocent, absent— or even naively unaware – of the egotism and greed evident in many public figures.

Therefore, the U.S. evening news show 60 Minutes surprised viewers when it produced an expose of sorts that associated Mortenson with a kind of greed and dishonesty unheard of in his books. Comments on the 60 Minutes website call the story a “bloody witch hunt” and a “shame,” suggesting that they “find a story or an organization worthy of criticism.” However, as a national news organization, it’s only expected that 60 Minutes sets out to discover the truth, especially in response to “complaints from former donors, board members, staffers, and charity watchdogs about Mortenson and the way he is running his non-profit organization.” What is surprising, however, is the ease with which Steve Kroft and the 60 Minutes team dramatized the story, presenting it as an outrage.

Upon first watch, the story reads like a scandal. And most viewers don’t watch more than once. The story, framed as a sassy response to an immensely popular book, man and institute presents itself as being above balance; it operates on the assumption that it gives balance to a scale already tilted in Mortenson’s favor. However, this assumption leads to a journalistically unsound piece. While the package documents several unsuccessful attempts to speak with Mortenson, it also excludes any comments that fans and co-workers might have been willing to make in Mortenson’s favor. But oddly enough, the LA Times, New York Times, BBC and ABC were able to procure quotes refuting 60 Minutes’ claims for stories in response to the piece. Let us review the claims in a less dramatized, more thorough manner.

The sensationalism begins with a bold claim from Jon Krakauer, author and $75,000 donor to Mortenson’s cause. “It’s a beautiful story, and it’s a lie,” he declares vehemently after a summary of Mortenson’s supposed tale. This allegation is solidified by claims from Mortenson’s porters that he never, in fact, stumbled into the village where he claims his aspirations all began. It is not solidified, however, by the segment’s footage of Krakauer scouring piles of books and papers as though completing very detailed research on Mortenson’s story—at least factually. Early on, the segment’s feigned candidness reveals its attempt to visually lure the reader into a state of belief.

But did Mortenson lie? In a rebuttal on abcnews.com, he points out that the stories he recalled for his book Three Cups of Tea took place more than 18 years ago—long enough to get some details mixed up. However, some disputed facts are clearly not the product of a faulty memory, like the difference between the three schools that Krakauer claims Mortenson built in Kunar Province, and the eleven schools Mortenson told Charlie Rose about. In addition, Krakauer claims that many of the schools Mortenson built are either non-existent or not operative. But is the failure of a school to function once Mortenson leaves his fault? The video refuses to take those questions into account, simply building the sensationalism with footage of a building that is less-than-impressive by the standards of its primarily western viewership.  A BBC response story presents a more neutral perspective. While they claim that many schools Mortenson takes credit for were actually built by NATO’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams or the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, they also quote a CAI director in Afghanistan who is “ready to take any member of the press so that they can see [the CAI’s schools] for themselves.”

In an interview with an ABC correspondent, Mortenson speaks proudly of a village that built its own school when he and his people with the CAI couldn’t get to them. And later, he refers to the statistic that before his organization’s work, only 800 thousand children were in school in the Middle East, while now 9 million children are. Mortenson does not, however, make any direct claims that the CAI directly spurred this increase. But he’s still proud of it. Here, he demonstrates that even when another organization or group builds a school, he not only rejoices, but feels some sort of association—a “we’re-all-in-this-together” mentality. While this by no means serves as justifications for any embellishment or tall tales, it may help to explain the perceived half-truths that Mortenson has declared in regards to his school building.

Furthermore, this mentality might serve as a valid retort to another accusation brought against Mortenson—that he uses more money to speak in American than to build schools in underdeveloped nations. At first, this may indeed seem counterintuitive. But as an obviously devoted proponent of education, Mortenson understands the values of constructive, norm-building techniques. In an article on the website Real Clear Politics, former United States Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jed Babbin claims that the war against terrorism “is, at its core, an ideological war.” As important as educating children in Pakistan and Afghanistan might be, educating Americans—those with power and money—is equally important in the war on terror. While this tactic rings impotent in the ears of realist politicians, it is both valid and effective from a constructivist norm-valuing perspective.

Krakauer also attacks Mortenson’s money management and organization skills. He claims that multiple people left the organization because “in so many words… Greg uses Central Asia Institute as his private ATM machine.” Kroft seems to goad these statements out of him, asking loaded and opinionated questions like “Do you think contributors are being misled?” on camera. A message board response to these accusations features a statement from Andrew Marcus, former board member of the Central Asia Institute, who claims that “the reason they resigned was because of discussions of the future, more philosophical differences.” To a viewer who has only heard of the book, Mortenson’s lack of management may come as a shock. But to anyone who has read Mortenson’s book, the fact that he is not especially well-versed in the field of running a whole organization does not qualify as news. Repeated references to inexperience, poor time-management skills, and the overwhelming nature of running a whole organization litter Three Cups of Tea, lending it a sense of modesty and truthfulness not new to anyone familiar with Mortenson.

But despite poor management skills, Mortenson at least possesses the ambition to not give up. Even when raising enough money or coordinating his duties in Pakistan with the duties of parenthood seem impossible, he works to complete both—something more than most can say. But 60 Minutes tries to portray this ambition as malignance, suggesting that Mortenson misspent pennies donated by “thousands of school children who emptied their piggy-banks.” Slow-motion footage of innocent-faced children dropping pennies accompanies this loaded language, again showcasing the producers’ desire to capitalize upon the element of scandal.

Another claim made against Mortenson accuses him of fabricating a story about being held captive. An interview with Mansur Khan Mahsud, pictured as a captor in the book, reveals that he in fact claims to have served as Mortenson’s protector. Whether his claims are valid, and whether this is a case of a fabricated story or simply a poorly captioned photo remains unclear.  However, question over who provided and captioned the photo raises another key question that 60 Minutes conveniently forgets to ask: what about the book’s co-author? Even ABC’s piece documenting Mortenson’s response leaves mention of co-author David Oliver Relin to the very end. As a self-identified journalist, doesn’t Relin hold any responsibility for faulty facts? What of his duty to verify information before publishing? Rather than focus on the factual realities of the book’s publication, the 60 Minutes piece only reports on the tidbits worthy of exaggeration and melodrama.

It seems that most of what Kroft and his team turned up does not weigh too heavily upon the validity of the CAI’s mission. By no means should Mortenson be excused from distorting the truth. But the nature of this segment reveals more shocking truths about human nature than about Mortenson.

Theatrics sell. Just as 60 Minutes—and plenty of other news sources—plays up the drama, conflict and scandal in any news story, Mortenson seems to have played up the human interest traits of his story. Ironically, the piece that calls him out for attempting to draw readers in makes use of many of the same truth-distorting, viewer-guaranteeing tactics. Western society loves suspense, heartbreak, betrayal, and lies—and a non-fiction setting renders these characteristics all the more appealing. If Mortenson did in fact lie to sell books, society should question itself as well as him; why do we require embellishment to act on behalf of such a charitable cause? And before expecting an answer to this question from our media, we should look for it first and foremost in ourselves.

Works Cited:

“Questions over Greg Mortenson’s stories.” 60 Minutes. 15 April 2011. Web.

Babbin, Jed. “Fighting the ideological war.” Real Clear Politics 6 March 2006. Web.

Kellogg, Carolyn. “Greg Mortenson responds to ’60 Minutes’ questions about his ‘Three Cups of Tea’ story.” April 2011. Los Angeles Times. Web.

Khan, M Ilyas and Bilal Sarwary. “Three Cups of Tea: The Pakistan and Afghan side.” BBC. April 2011. Web.

Dolak, Kevin and Dean Schabner. “’Three Cups of Tea’ Author Denies ’60 Minutes’ Claims.” ABC News. 17 April 2011.

Reflection: Three Cups of Tea

Last semester, I took a class about terrorism. Many of the counter-insurgency tactics we discussed seemed natural. For soldiers to protect and befriend civilians, to change the mind of those in power, and to make it clear that US troops are well-intentioned makes sense—much more so than blindly shooting and bombing. Counter-insurgency tactics target the heart of the issue—anti-American sentiment. More violent strategies only exacerbate tensions.

While reading about Greg Mortenson’s mission in Three Cups of Tea, I traced the same logic that helped me to understand counter-insurgency tactics so easily.  The ultimate key to ending conflict seems to be understanding— of self, of the world, of neighbors, of enemy sects and of enemy countries. For Mortenson, this logic comes naturally. He feels immediate sympathy for children forced to study with no building or teacher, but he also sees hope for an entire region in its wisdom and educated members. “I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them,” he says, recognizing their wisdom and potential.

And because Mortenson recognizes the importance of deep understanding on both his part—of Pakistani cultures and traditions—and on the Pakistani part—of American intentions, of other cultures and of life skills, he is able to make a difference.

First, he is able to identify what must be done. He recognizes that education can engender health, peace and happiness. I agree wholeheartedly with him on this point: education is key. Educated men and women have the capabilities to serve their village, and thus don’t turn to violence. “Terror…” he writes, “happens because children aren’t being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death.” Changing this changes everything.

Additionally, he understands how to bring about those changes. He knows that knowledge and understanding are important for Pakistan, but he realizes that they are equally important for him if he wishes to help. This, therefore, brings me to the next way to help bring about peace in regions of conflict: cultivate our own understanding.

Don’t blindly send in troops with guns. Send in educated men and women, aware of local customs and culture and able to operate respectfully. They will be most able to identify not only the enemies, but also the allies they are there to protect. Not only will they be more effective—gaining cooperation and completing their mission, but their respectful behavior will slowly but surely transform the negative perceptions that fuel anti-American violence.

Through my career in journalism, I hope to spread this understanding among my people. Mortenson’s actions on behalf of the US remind me of how it feels to be proud of where I’m from. I want to help develop a generation that adds to this pride. I want to help develop a generation that realizes, in Mortenson’s words, “that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.”

Bloody Sunday Reflection

As violence ripples through the Middle East, it creates the impression that protests rarely remain peaceful. In Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere, protests that begun peacefully have met forceful, even murderous responses. While the blame for a large deal of this violence can be assigned to authoritarian governments wishing to maintain power, questions still remain. What is it about human nature that makes government after government so likely to meet peace with force? What element of protest allows for such rapid ascension to brutality? While political and social sciences offer academic, theoretical explanations of this phenomenon, it seems as though a more mysterious, more human element plays a role. Through use of “mockumentary” filming and editing techniques, the 2002 film Bloody Sunday explores this element, demonstrating the chaos and emotion so able to transform peaceful protests into massacre within minutes.

Film captures emotion perhaps more thoroughly than any other medium, as it creates the most lifelike representation of the actual event being depicted. Andre Bazin, influential film critic, believes that filmmakers strive to approach an ideal of “total and complete representation of reality… unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time” (Shaviro 1). If filmmakers were to reach that ideal, the emotion experienced by a film’s audience would mirror the emotion felt by a real-life participant in the same event. Although filmmakers may never completely reach this ultimate goal of complete realism, Paul Greengrass comes close with Bloody Sunday, a documentary-style film about peaceful protest in Northern Ireland turning sour.

Throughout the entire film, the viewer feels as though he or she could be on site, holding the camera—or not even worrying about one. Ceaseless wobbling, jerky zooming, out of focus shooting, and often non-existent lighting do away entirely with visions of metal tripods,  towering film lights and take after take of the same scene. As multimedia journalist Brian Storm puts it, “panning and zooming is not how the eye sees.” Greengrass seems to understand this entirely. The viewer’s eyes stay glued to the screen throughout the entire film, because this is not made easy-to-understand like an average Hollywood production.

Small elements that most filmmakers would purposefully avoid show up intentionally and have a momentous emotional effect. Camera flashes that obscure the speaker at a press conference highlight the intensity with which reporters try to capture a scene. Rooms so dark one can only hear what takes place cause a certain frustration, elevating the sensation of helplessness. This technique becomes especially effective during moments of life-or-death gravity. When the car on its way to the hospital cannot make it through, the viewer cannot even peer through the window to check on things. Furthermore, just a single scene’s audio includes various pieces of sound, each seeming equally important. The viewer, unsure whether he should listen to conversation, cries from off-camera, or sirens growing louder and softer and louder again, experiences the same conflict that occurs during moments of chaos in real life. Finally, the lack of change in camera angle during intimate scenes adds the finishing emotional touch. The viewer feels almost as though he or she has intruded on something personal, watching through a hidden camera or from behind a closet door. Greengrass prevents multiple angles and regular lighting from making these private moments into a public spectacle, placing further emotional significance upon them. In her book Packaging Terrorism, Susan D. Moeller discusses this phenomenon. “It’s our access to what should have been a private moment reserved for family and friends that gave the coverage the power it had,” she writes about an attack on Jordanian hotels where wedding celebrations took place. Access to personal moments spark human curiosity, and knowledge that violence didn’t just kill people— but destroyed intimate relationships— triggers heartbreak.

In addition to reeling in human interest, these few personal angles at the beginning of the film explore the emotional element of government inflicted violence even further. Greengrass creates the impression that these scenes are not public, and then switches instantaneously to dialogue between British soldiers. By exemplifying the “women and children” mentioned at the start of the film, and then moving without transition to men so seemingly unaware of these family intricacies, Greengrass fully exploits the juxtaposition of  private tenderness and public force. These transitions, in which the screen fades quickly to black before a new, different scen opens with no explanation, increase a sensation of chaos and helplessness. “The director makes things move even faster by assembling it as a series of blackouts, and all the cuts build a charged thoughtfulness,” writes Elvis Mitchell in a New York Times movie review. Toward the end of the film, these blackouts become increasingly brief and lacking in dialogue. In a traditional film, dialogue often provides the clearest insight into exactly why and how things happen. Here, that lack of dialogue abandons logical explanations for pure emotional propulsion. But despite the lack of dialogue and clarity, that violence would occur makes perfect sense when such fast-paced action meets intensity of emotion. “For all the characters on screen, we can glimpse their hearts in their eyes,” writes Mitchell.

Bloody Sunday makes evident the ways in which emotion and chaos interact to create force. Although disgusted with the violence, the audience understands the confusion felt by soldiers who fired. An official asks, “Well, what is force in a situation like this?” He attempts to justify his actions, but at the same time verbally illustrates the room for ambiguity generated by such chaos. The leaders behind today’s protests turned bloody employ the same strategy.   “I dare you to find that peaceful protesters were killed. In America, France, and everywhere, if people attacked military stores and tried to steal weapons, they will shoot them,” announced Gaddafi in a speech about military force used in Libya. Just as the British official in Bloody Sunday does, Gaddafi attempts to obscure the unjust use of force by referencing the frenzied situation in which it occurred. In a time when peaceful protests so often meet with force, a cinematic look into the causes proves especially relevant.

Works Cited

“Libya: Gaddafi’s speech in quotes.” The Telegraph 2 March 2011. Web. 6 March 2011.

Mitchell, Elvis. “FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS; ‘Bloody Sunday’ In Londonderry.” New York Times 2 Oct. 2002. Web. 6 March 2011.

Moeller, Susan D. Packaging Terrorism. Singapore: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Print.

Shaviro, Steven. “Emotion Capture: Affect in Digital Film.” Projections 1.2 (2007): 63-82. Web. 6 March 2011.

Munich Reflection

Undoubtedly, films about terrorism propagate fear. But so do films about haunted houses. Fear that stems from a theatrical portrayal of terrorism differs from fear generated by a horror film only because the former reproduces an actual event. While the average viewer believes it unlikely that his attic contains a demon, a constant inundation of threatening news reports about terrorism renders him less uncertain that his workplace contains a bomb. Although theatrical portrayals of terrorist events do facilitate terrorists by furthering fear, they do not act alone. If the press serves as “oxygen of publicity” to the flames of terrorism, then movies are like additional logs—strengthening the fire when added on occasion, but not directly responsible for its endurance. Government and media construct conditions that determine much of how audiences perceive the entertainment industry’s product.

While cinematic portrayals of terrorism deepen fear, they rarely initiate it. Government officials and news media respond to acts of terror far before the entertainment industry does, setting up the framework within which the public understands terrorism. In Packaging Terrorism, Susan D. Moeller illustrates how a government’s response to a terrorist attack sets the tone in which the public understands it. She cites New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s assertion that after 9/11, “the administration portrayed America as a nation under threat from every direction” (184). Krugman’s column illustrates that as time passed, the government continued to call for absurd responses— bombing Iran and uniting against “Islamofacism” (1) — that incite a sense of pure desperation among the public.

And the press—perhaps inadvertently mirroring government response or perhaps simply trying to garner viewers— contributes to an overstated public fear of terrorists. Phrases like “radical Islamist,” excessively extensive coverage of only selected events, and even the tone of reporters’ voices all generate fear. Fear, for media, is the norm, rather than an exceptional response to select situations. These types of responses render the emotions created by film about terrorism far too deeply intertwined with other forms of communication to analyze alone.

Although some viewers may be too young to have witnessed press coverage of an event later portrayed through theater, this framework of understanding does not deal in specific events. One does not need to have lived through the events at the Munich Olympics to perceive the gravity of terrorism after watching Munich. In fact, just as Munich does, films about terrorist acts often include their own portrayals of the press. By illustrating families and individuals glued to the television as reports air about the attack in Munich, Steven Spielberg reproduces the sentiment that news broadcasts are to be taken seriously and received with wide eyes. While Spielberg does implicitly promote the audience’s failure to critically assess the news, this failure would not exist for anyone to promote if not for the weighty and overplayed tone the press employs.

One might argue that since movies serve entertainment purposes and news serves information purposes, fear and dramatization belong in entertainment. However, the lines are never so clearly drawn, and this lack of division sparks questions. Do movies about factual events inform viewers? Should movies about factual events inform viewers? In what respects should the original event be objectively replicated, and it what respects can it be dramatized? Which facts are appropriate to include?

To answer these questions, one must first understand and analyze the objective of the film industry. While goals vary from director to director, movies are typically produced to profit through the fulfillment of some public desire. In “Fear in the News: A Discourse of Control,” David L. Altheide and R. Sam Michalowski explain the audience’s “expectation that danger and risk are a central feature of the effective environment” (1). That is, news viewers don’t care about a story unless it contains a threat to be conquered. Without that hope of satisfaction, they have little reason to watch the news.

This phenomenon carries over to the film industry. Jeffrey Goldstein, a psychology professor at the University of Utrecht, explains that people watch horror films to fulfill a need for excitement and intensity of emotions. However, films about non-fictional terrorist events take this fulfillment a step further. Goldstein also explains that the practice of sensation-seeking, “the enjoyment of stimulation or physiological arousal,” creates an audience for fear.

And while horror may seem at home in the back of an old cemetery or the corners of an abandoned warehouse, fear within ordinary, realistic situations, releases chemicals that bring sensation-seeking to a new level. The victims of terrorism—and of counterterrorism—in Munich haven’t been fleeing zombies for half of the movie. As Moeller points out in Packaging Terrorism, “the deliberate randomness of their targeting of civilians is what makes [terrorists’] violence so arresting” (184). Thus, as long as government and news aid terrorists by inducing public fear with headlines like “Where will they strike next?’ the film industry will fulfill the public desire to observe fear within everyday situations from the comfort of a theater.

However, directors often cite loftier desires than making money by fulfilling desires. In a Time Magazine interview, Spielberg says that while he wasn’t “making this picture because the message can do some good for the world,” he also “didn’t make this movie to make money.” Rather, he says, he wanted to tell a story that others didn’t have the courage to get “out in the ether.” After making the movie, Spielberg facilitated a project in which he distributed video cameras to 125 Israeli children and to 125 Palestinian children and instructed them to make short films about their lives. Then, they exchanged the videos. (“Munich: The Interview). These types of actions demonstrate that while Hollywood does play upon public desire for income, making money isn’t its sole objective. Political context created by government and news transforms neutral or good intentions into avenues for terrorists to spread fear.

Spielberg cites a desire to “get that story told.” While it makes perfect sense for filmmakers to be interested in storytelling, it is interesting to note that those who usually deal in fiction have such a great interest in spreading awareness. While admirable of Spielberg and other directors to help to fill a void of knowledge in society, doesn’t the existence of that void indicate that the press is too busy “fear-mongering” (Moeller 184) to complete its job?

The theatrics of Hollywood do get tangled with the ethics of awareness-spreading in unsettling ways; one of Munich’s bloodiest scenes involves a portion of a blown up human corpse hanging from a moving ceiling fan. Details like this spark debate about whether gore is necessary or appropriate, although it is undoubtedly accurate. However, a Guardian article discusses the “firestorm of controversy about its political sympathies and historical accuracy.” Discrepancies range from factual inconsistencies like the number of agents involved in assassinations, to major claims, such as Spielberg’s portrayal of the spirit behind the attacks. (MacAskill). Further research conducted on Hollywood’s portrayal of terrorism found similar discrepancies in a number of films, and concluded “that real life is much more multi-faceted than the movies” (Wagge). While arguments against censorship suggest that filmmakers and viewers alike are okay with occasional bloodshed, the context in which this violence is understood should be a clearer one. If filmmakers appealing to a hunger for fear were not the sole means of spreading awareness, the movies would become a place for informed citizens to stimulate their emotions after reading the paper. Whether movies serve terrorists as well as producers depends upon the degree to which viewers are previously informed.

Works Cited:

Altheide, David L. and R. Sam Michalowski. “Fear in the News: A Discourse of Control.” The Sociological Quarterly. 40.3. (1999): 475-503. Web. Feb. 6 2010.

Black, Ian and Ewan MacAskill. “Munich: Mossad breaks cover.” Guardian 26 Jan. 2007. Web.

Goldstein, Jeffrey. Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment. Oxford University Press, New York, 1998. Web.

Krugman, Paul. “Fearing Fear Itself.” New York Times 29 Oct. 2007. Web.

Moeller, Susan D. Packaging Terrorism. Singapore: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Print

“Munich: The Interview: His Prayer for Peace.” Time 14 Dec. 2005. Web.

Wagge, Jordan. “A Captive Audience: The Portrayal of Terrorism and Terrorists in Large-Scale Fictional Hollywood Media.” http://www1.appstate.edu/~stefanov/proceedings/wagge.htm. Web.

Comfort in Fear

Audience receptivity skyrocketed. At just ten years old, even I caught on. My mom brought me to school early to put up posters for the student council election. The election had dominated my priority list; and therefore was at the forefront of my parents’ minds too. Posters, stickers, speeches—the Gregory family had no time for news that morning. When my mom dropped me off, we were perfectly unaware of the largest, most transformative news story to break in years.

I noticed more noise than usual in the empty hallways, but eerie noise. The muffled TV sets, hushed voices, and lack of children or laughter unnerved me enough to show up at my classroom a full ten minutes early. Immediately, I noticed that the TV was on, which confused me because we had no movie planned. My teacher was watching the same show as another teacher, featuring repeated footage of a plane tearing into a building. She was on the phone, and come to think of it, several other teachers I’d passed were making phone calls too. Everyone must be so excited about this show, I thought.

“Oh my god, this can’t be real.” As my teacher spoke those words, I noticed for the first time this was a news show. My teacher explained what was going on, and questioned whether my parents would even want me in school right now. As more students showed up, she lowered the TV’s volume, but she didn’t turn it off; she didn’t even mute it. That TV stayed on all day, still showing the plane tearing into the building.

Two things intrigue me about this memory. I felt unsafe. I felt unsafe in a vague and terrifying way. I didn’t expect an airplane to fly into my school, but I was scared because the people in charge of me were scared. Meanwhile, the people in charge of me were scared because the people in charge of them— or in charge of their world perceptions— were scared too. While the news media were painstakingly familiar with the element of fear, this fear was authentic, and it alarmed everyone.

I also remember how strange it felt that the television was on. At school we learned about the world through the filters of textbooks, never straight off the TV. My classmates weren’t the only non-traditional viewers that day; teachers and employees all over kept the newsfeed constant. These elements— genuine fear and a receptive audience— rendered the traditional US approach to news useless and revealed how US media, in comparison with foreign news sources, uses fear to draw in viewers.

News media depends upon advertising. Since advertisers want to market their products as widely as possible, news corporations must entice plenty of viewers to stay afloat. News, therefore, is not just about information. While networks attempt to objectively deliver facts, they draw upon curiosity and emotions as well. Celebrity news and human interest stories attract viewers, but so does fear. In an article about the use of fear in news media and popular culture, David L. Altheide and R. Sam Michalowski assert that “popular culture [is] oriented to pursuing a ‘problem frame’,” (Altheide and Michalowski, 475) in which media isn’t interesting unless it’s problematic. Furthermore, if the problems don’t pose a personal threat, incentive to watch is still limited. It answers, according to Altheide and Michalowski, the press’s major question: “How can we make real problems seem interesting?” (479) However, the media delivers this fear in measured doses, so that viewers feel the need to stay informed, but still enjoy watching.

Acts of terror did not fit neatly into a problem frame. Journalists followed fear-inducing patterns for murder, for drug busts, for armed robberies. But for once, the content alone induced panic, so where did they come in? Some stations, like CNN, handled the situation inquisitively, with a tone of eerie calm, explicitly refraining from speculation and “panic here on the air” (9/11/01 CNN…). Others, like ABC, attempted to quell immediate shock as the planes hit and broadcast continued. FOX, however, replayed the impact in slow motion and engaged in immediate speculation. A September 12th headline from FOX’s website reads “Arafat Horrified by Attacks, but Thousands of Palestinians Celebrate,” creating an enemy for readers to fear just a day after the attack. The same images aired repeatedly. Without the use of catchy graphics or music, viewers genuinely wanted and needed to see the news. Journalists everywhere were bewildered.

Elsewhere, reporting lacked scare tactics and melodrama. BBC’s 9/11 coverage serves as a precise example. The reporter first covering the event, while not overly quiet, eerie, or dumbstruck, also avoids panic and guesswork. She simply reports calmly and objectively. The September 11th homepage of BBC’s website contains repeated headlines about the terrorist attacks, but avoids catchphrases like “Day of Terror” (September 11 News…). Minimal pictures stand next to the headlines, not exceeding the textbox in size unlike CNN’s and ABC’s dominating photos. However, controversy ensued after a BBC reporter allegedly announced the fall of Tower Seven before it actually happened. Groups who refer to themselves as “truthers” claim that U.S. government, BBC, and other news and governance agencies took part in the attacks (911Truth.org). This controversy may generate suspicion, but it also serves as a perfect example of the “fear [that] pervades popular culture and the news media” (Altheide and Michalowski, 475) taking root in other forms of public discourse.

In Sri Lanka, an attack like 9-11 did not fall so far out of previously established problem frames. “It was not a new experience for our organisation – as Sri Lanka was undergoing a war during this period,” says Shameer Rasooldeen, CNN World View Correspondent and News1st reporter. “Over 60,000 people have been killed during the three-decade long war,” he adds. In regions used to real, constant threats, reporters and news broadcasters don’t need to turn to scare tactics. Here perhaps, a genuine need for awareness draws in enough viewers on its own. The United States, however, took a few days to fit the events within a somewhat familiar frame. “Subsequent to the aftermath of the attack, probably after two days, there were opinion pieces and even stories about survival and the reaction from the world,” Rasooldeen recalls. “[They] turned this incident in a way that created somewhat of a hatred towards the Muslim community around the world.” Here he notes US attempts, just days after the attack, to hold onto the audience by embellishing the events with controversy. Instead of continuing to encourage controversy, Rasooldeen suggests the US media report more on the subsequent attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. “What about the human rights of the innocent civilians in these countries?” he asks. “Let’s not talk about terrorism alone. If we can make a difference in the people’s lives, let’s do it and start that effort now.”

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 did generate more global awareness within the news. According to a data generated by PDT Research, coverage of terrorism increased by 135 percent in the years following 9/11, coverage of US foreign policy by 102 percent (How 9/11…). However, journalists still deliver that global awareness in an exploitative manner. Foreign news gained a presence on the nightly newscast, but not at the expense of human interest and celebrity stories intended to draw viewers in. Just months after September 2001, a study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism announced that “eight-in-ten evening news stories concern[ed] government, national or international affairs, up 67%” (Before and After). But four years later, the total ratio of hard to soft news hardly changed (How 9/11…). Only coverage of national hard news decreased significantly to make room for more international news. “Although subjects such as drugs and crime were the traditional ways of making people frightened, they are easily trumped by terrorism,” explains ADT Research’s Tyndall Report (How 9/11…). If the media sought increased viewer awareness, time spent on celebrities could instead catch viewers up on uncovered events leading up to the shock of 9/11. Instead, the press simply catered to the audience’s limited attention span, talking more about the world until that got boring. Terrorism, today, has lost its genuine shock factor, and “the war on terror” serves simply as another phrase to generate that comfortable fear that keeps viewers hooked. If an event as unexpected, powerful and tragic didn’t change the sensational attitude behind news reporting, perhaps only a shift in news format will.

Works Cited
Altheide, David L. and R. Sam Michalowski. “Fear in the News: A Discourse of Control.” The Sociological Quarterly. 40.3. (1999): 475-503. Web. Feb. 6 2011.

9/11/01 – CNN News Coverage 1st 5 Minutes. 9 July 2007. Youtube. 5 Feb. 2011. Web. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfYQAPhjwzA.

“Arafat Horrified by Attacks, but Thousands of Palestinians Celebrate; Rest of World Outraged.” FoxNews.com 12 Sept. 2001. Web. 6 Feb. 2011.

Williams, A.D. September 11 News. September11News.com. Web. 5 Feb. 2011.

“Before and After. How The War on Terrorism Has Changed The News Agenda.” journalism.org. Project for Excellence in Journalism, 19 Nov. 2001. Web. 5 Feb 2011.

“How 9-11 Changed the Evening News.” journalism.org. Project for Excellence in Journalism, 11 Sept. 2006. Web. 5 Feb 2011.

911Truth.org. 911Truth.org, 2001. Web. 6 Feb. 2011.

Terrorism: by nature or by press?

The word “terrorism” conjures up sentiment beyond its dictionary definition. In his article “The New McCarthyism: Repeating History in the War on Terrorism,” David Cole argues that the war on terror allows the government “simultaneously to repeat history and to insist that it is not repeating history,” bringing about panic akin to that of the Red Scare (Cole 1). However, government does not hold this power exclusively. Without even uttering the term, news media can produce terrorist scares. When treated inappropriately by leaders of the public sphere, any event evokes sentiments of panic and fear— from act of terror to isolated tragedy. Before news coverage and government response, the Tucson shootings may have just been the latter. But news and government transformed tragedy into terror.

In order to decide whether Jared Loughner’s actions alone qualify as an act of terrorism, one must first define the term. According to Title 18 of the US Code on the Cornell University Law School website, “the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and

(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States

This definition makes Jared Loughner a terrorist. Shooting and killing a judge endangers life, breaks criminal laws, and affects government. But any shooting could satisfy those criteria because most violence “intimidate[s]… a civilian population.” Perhaps the US Code’s definition is too vague.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation calls terrorism “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (Federal Bureau of Investigation) European states say that terrorism is a “specific offence… that may seriously damage a country… and is committed for the purpose of intimidating the population, forcing a third party to act or destabilizing or destroying the fundamental structures of a country…” (Terrorism handout) Loughner might be a terrorist under this definition, but to know, we would have to be him. While court cases can reach a formal ruling about whether or not an act falls under this definition, one’s true motives remain forever unsubstantiated. A definition contingent upon a person’s purpose for acting fails to define much. Of course, killing thousands and publicly announcing the intent to destabilize isn’t too vague—one can make some safe assumptions. But these definitions do little to address smaller crimes.

Definitions agreed upon by states function only for large acts of terror because large acts of terror are what the states writing these definitions have in mind. The definitions’ lack of clarity implicitly reveals that before even defining terrorism on paper, states have begun to define it internally— as something enormous. While terrorism intimidates the population, the idea of terrorism intimidates the officials who define it. This menacing conception doesn’t originate solely with government officials. It rises also from the media, feeding and feeding upon itself, fulfilling its definition every time the news implicitly defines it.

Ominous intro music, a somber or outraged tone of voice, and bold text accompany news reports about terrorism. Phrases like “war on terror” and “radical Islamic extremism” alert the audience that terror is a very real threat. Visual and verbal tactics combined attempt to scare viewers . As much as the day’s events compose the front page of the paper, the front page of the paper composes the day’s events—at least in the audience’s mind. A crime as minor as domestic assault might garner a few shaking heads, or it might intimidate an entire neighborhood and thus become terrorism under US code, depending upon how the neighbors hear about it.

Was the shooting in Tucson an act of terrorism? It was when Jan Brewer wanted America to see her as Arizona’s bold yet tactful leader, even in the face of the “tragedy and terror” (Full text…). It was when reporters, eager to get the story first, mistakenly pronounced Gabrielle Giffords dead It was when news zoomed slowly in on Loughner’s YouTube page , captivating viewers, but unsettling them as well. For the most part, the media did not include the term “terrorism” in reports of the incident, perhaps because it occurred in isolation. Yet, if Loughner had a support network or better logistics, his sentiment would still present a threat. Would the media then refer to him as a terrorist? Does capability qualify actions as terrorism? If so, government and media assist Loughner in becoming a terrorist because without their response and reporting, his actions would only have unnerved those in the Safeway parking lot. Terror depends on those who tell of it. Politicians, entertainers, and reporters all play a critical role in knowledge production for the general public. Thus, in the absence of a universal definition, terrorism is whichever crime those in the public eye use to grab attention.

Works Cited

Cole, D. 2003. The New McCarthyism: Repeating History in the War on Terrorism. Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. Paper 74. 19 January 2011.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. 2005. Terrorism: 2002-2005. Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice. 26 January 2011.

2011. Full text of Gov. Jan Brewer’s State of the State address. AZ Capitol Times.com. 20 January 2011.

2010. United States Code. Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. Title 18, Part I, Chapter 113B, § 2331. 19 January 2011.

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Terrorism and the Press

This blog is an integral part of a special section of Honors 394 Spring 2010, Arizona State University. Rather than a routine history course this dynamic, interactive seminar explores the interplay between terrorism and television, and other media sources on-line and in print. 26 students and their global pen pals comprise the bloggers. We welcome all to share their opinions, pertinent observations, insights, comments, feedback. Please post in a responsible manner.