The West Wing is widely considered to be the product of its liberal writer Aaron Sorkin and of a left-leaning Hollywood community. Liberals, disappointed by the results of the 2000 election, could find some solace by tuning in following the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the fictional Bartlet administration every Wednesday night at nine o'clock. These same people might have looked forward to an alternative to President Bush's prosecution of the war on terrorism in the wake of September 11. However, Sorkin's President Bartlet, in the months after the terrorist attacks, pursued a foreign policy more hawkish than even that of the Bush administration. This article examines The West Wing's portrayal of terrorism after September 11 and Josiah Bartlet's zealous - and arguably overzealous - prosecution of a fictional "War on Terror."
To some, studying a fictional television's depiction of terrorism may seem frivolous in a time when real people are fighting and dying in a real war on terrorism. However, it is our argument that messages in fiction matter; they matter in real and political ways. The depictions of terrorism and other public issues in fictional media affect how people think about the world. That these messages frequently go unexamined is troublesome. This article takes seriously the power of fiction to shape and form ideas and arguments about the world. In a time when people are afraid and living with the uncertainty that terrorism creates, it behooves scholars to look at all of the messages the public receives on the topic, from President Bush to President Bartlet.
History suggests that compelling narratives can carry remarkable social and political force. The idea that stories hold persuasive power is at least as old as the parables of Jesus. Over the last century, both totalitarian and democratic governments have shown a healthy respect for narratives and their potential to bring about social change. The former Soviet Union censored the politically themed fiction of Nobel laureates Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Members of the US Congress blacklisted "anti-American" screenwriters, directors, and actors in Hollywood in 1947 (Rosenfeld). Today, the US Department of Defense routinely advises film companies and television networks on the portrayal of the military in their storylines. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Pentagon chose to release proposed rules for military tribunals of terrorist defendants to writers of the CBS television drama JAG before making the same information available to the news media (Seelye).
As the lines between news and entertainment continue to blur, political scientists have begun to acknowledge that a wide variety of television programming, including entertainment and fiction, can inform the public's ideas about politics. Michael Belli Carpini and Bruce Williams argue that any meaningful discussion of media and politics should move beyond the outdated and unsatisfying distinction between traditional conceptions of news and entertainment (2001a).
When determining whether a piece of information or a certain medium is "politically relevant," Delli Carpini and Williams argue for a test based on how individuals use the information rather than the information's genre, content, or source. Over the last fifty years -the "Golden Age of Broadcast News" -the test of whether a piece of information was considered "political" depended on its genre (news, not entertainment), its content (fact, not fiction), or its source (journalists, not film actors). Today, political scientists have begun to recognize that individuals sometimes draw upon entertainment programs and fictional narratives in forming political beliefs (Delli Carpini and Williams, 2001a). While the entertainment media do not rival traditional news media in politically relevant information, they argue that its importance should not be underestimated. …