Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Terrorism, the Mass Media, and the Events of 9-11

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Terrorism, the Mass Media, and the Events of 9-11

Article excerpt

As millions of Americans watched the terror of 9-11 live on television or the Internet, most were already familiar with the shocking images: the inferno in a skyscraper, the terrorists attacking a towering high-rise, the total destruction of a federal building in Washington, the nuclear winter cityscapes in America, Manhatten under siege after a terrorist attack. In search of box-office hits, Hollywood had already produced for many years a steady stream of disaster movies and thrillers, often based on best-selling novels, which used just such images.

In a popular culture inundated with images of violence, the horror of the quadruple hijack coup was as real as in the movie, but it was surreal in life. Novelist John Updike, who witnessed the calamity from a tenth-floor apartment in Brooklyn, felt that "as on television, this was not quite real, it could be fixed; the technocracy the towers symbolized would find a way to put out the fire and reverse the damage."

The greatest irony was that the very terrorists who loathe America's pop culture as decadent and poisonous to their own beliefs and ways of life turned Hollywood-like horror fantasies into real-life hell. In that respect they outperformed Hollywood, the very symbol of their hate for American-led western entertainment. After visiting the World Trade Center disaster site for the first time, New York's Governor George Pataki said: "It's just incomprehensible to see what it was like down there. You know, I remember seeing one of these Cold War movies and after the nuclear attacks with the Hollywood portrayal of a nuclear winter. It looked worse than that in downtown Manhatten, and it wasn't some grade "B" movie. It was life. It was real."


From the terrorists' point of view, the attack on America was a perfectly choreographed production aimed at American and international audiences. In the past, terrorism has often been compared to theater. While the theater metaphor remains instructive, it has given way to that of terrorism as television spectacular, as breaking news that is watched by record audiences and transcends by far the boundaries of theatrical events.

From the perspective of those who produced this unprecedented terrorism-as-breaking-news horror show, this action was as successful as it can get. Whether it is the relatively inconsequential arson by an amateurish environmental group or mass destruction by a network of professional terrorists, the perpetrators' media-related goals are the same: attention, recognition, and perhaps even a degree of respectability and legitimacy in their various target publics.

It has been argued that contemporary religious terrorists, unlike secular terrorists, such as the Marxists of the Red Brigade/Red Army variety or the nationalists of the Palestinian Liberation Front brand during the last decades of the Cold War, want nothing more than to lash out at the enemy and express their rage. But while these sentiments may well figure into the complex motives of group leaders and their followers, their deeds are planned and executed with the mass media and their effects on the masses and government decisionmakers in mind.

To be sure, publicity via the mass media is not an end in itself. Most terrorists have very specific short-term and/or long-term goals. It is not hard to figure the short-term and long-term objectives of those who planned the suicide missions against the United States. Even without the benefit of a credible claim of responsibility, the mass media, decisionmakers, and the public in the United States and abroad have discussed the most likely motives for the unprecedented deeds. In the short term, the architects and perpetrators wanted to demonstrate the weakness of the world's only remaining superpower vis-a-vis determined terrorists, frighten the American public, and fuel perhaps a weakening of civil liberties and in the process foment domestic unrest. No doubt, the longterm schemes targeted U.S. foreign policy, especially the American influence and presence in the Middle East and other regions with large Muslim populations.

Whatever else their immediate and ultimate goals were, those who planned the attacks were well aware, as are most perpetrators of political violence, that the mass-communications media were central to furthering their publicity goals and even their political and religious objectives. Without the frightening images and the shocking stories, the impact on the United States and the rest of the world would not have been so immediate and intense as it was.

In the past, media critics have documented and questioned the mass media's insatiable appetite for violence. There was no need to count broadcast minutes and measure column inches to establish the proportion of the total news that dealt with "Black Tuesday" and its aftermath. For the first five days after the terror attack, the television and radio networks covered the disaster around the clock without the otherwise obligatory commercial breaks. There simply was no other news. Most sports and entertainment channels switched to crisis news, many of them carrying the coverage of one of the networks, some suspending their broadcasts that suddenly seemed irrelevant.

If not the perpetrators themselves, the architects of their terror enterprise surely anticipated the immediate media impact: blanket coverage not only in the United States but in most other parts of the world as well.

Opinion polls revealed that literally all Americans followed the initial news of the terrorist attacks (99 percent or 100 percent according to surveys) by watching and listening to television and radio. This initial universal interest in terrorism news did not weaken quickly. Political leaders as well followed the terror news and subsequent crisis reporting. There is no doubt at all, then, that the terrorists behind the attack on America got the attention of all Americans, the general public and leaders alike. This was a perfect achievement as far as the "attentiongetting" goal in the United States was concerned.

Those who were responsible for the acts of terror realized another goal that terrorists pursue, namely, to spread anxiety and fear in a public traumatized by their terror. In the days after the assault, nine in ten Americans worried about additional terrorist events in their country, and a majority worried that they themselves, or somebody close to them, could become victims the next time around. These concerns did not evaporate as time went by. Not only Americans but also people abroad, too, knew quickly about the terrorist attacks on the United States and were affected by what they saw, heard, and read. This phenomenon caused one commentator to conclude, "If there were any remaining doubts about the media's capacity to almost simultaneously disseminate global news, this poll's finding should serve to dispel it."

As media organizations, star anchors, and public officials became the targets of biological terrorism, and postal workers the most numerous victims of "collateral damage" in an unprecedented anthrax offensive by elusive terrorists, the news devoted to terrorism multiplied. Terrorists and terrorism had set the media agenda, the public agenda, and the government agenda. It was a total victory for their goal of getting the attention of the mass media, the public, and of governmental decisionmakers.

Sixteen days after the attacks on New York and Washington, the Christian Science Monitor published an in-depth article that addressed a question that President Bush had posed in his speech before a joint session of Congress, "Why do they [the terrorists] hate us? Describing a strong resentment toward the United States in the Arab and Islamic world, Peter Ford summarized the grievances articulated by Osama bin Laden and like-minded extremists but also held by many less-radical people in the Middle East and other Muslim regions. This lengthy article was but one of many similar reports and analytical background pieces tracing the roots of anti-American attitudes among Arabs and Muslims and possible causes for a new anti-American terrorism of mass destruction.

While the print press examined the roots of the deeply seated opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the Arab and Islamic world extensively, television and radio dealt with these questions as well - in some instances at considerable length and depth.

Thus, in the two and one-half weeks that followed the terrorist attacks, the major television networks and National Public Radio broadcast thirty-three stories that addressed the roots of anti-American terrorism of the sort committed on September 11, 2001, the motives of the perpetrators, and specifically the question that President Bush had asked. In the more than eight months before the attacks on New York and Washington, from January 1, 2001, to "Black Tuesday," none of the same television or radio programs addressed the causes of antiAmerican sentiments in the Arab and Islamic world. This turnaround demonstrated the ability of terrorists to force the media's hand, to set the media's agenda. Suddenly, in the wake of terrorist violence of unprecedented proportions, the news explored and explained the grievances of those who died for their causes and how widely these grievances were shared even by the vast majority of those Arabs and Muslims who condemned the violence committed in the United States.

The point here is not to criticize the media for publicizing such contextual pieces but rather to point out that this coverage and the accompanying mass-- mediated debate were the results of a horrific act of terror. In the process, the perpetrators of violence achieved their goal of recognition: By striking hard at America, the terrorists forced the mass media to explore their grievances in ways that transcended by far the quantity and narrow focus of the pre-crisis coverage.

What about the third goal that many terrorists hope to advance, namely to win or increase their respectability and legitimacy? Here, the perpetrators' number-one audience was not the terrorized public, but rather the population in their homelands and their regions of operation. A charismatic figure among his supporters and sympathizers to begin with, Osama bin Laden was the biggest winner in this respect. The media covered him as "America's number one public enemy" (according to a promotion for People magazine on CNN, September 29, 2001) and thereby bolstered his popularity, respectability, and legitimacy among millions of Muslims abroad. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and up to the beginning of the bombing of Afghanistan on October 7, the U.S. television networks covered Osama bin Laden more frequently, leading newspapers and National Public Radio only somewhat less frequently, than President George W. Bush. The same coverage patterns prevailed through the end of 2001 and thus during the military strikes against targets in Afghanistan. A terrible act of terror turned the world's most notorious terrorist into one of the leading newsmakers - indeed the leading newsmaker.

The fact that the American news media paid more attention to bin Laden than to the U.S. president, or nearly as much, was especially noteworthy considering that George W Bush made fifty-four public statements during this period as compared with bin Laden, who did not appear in public at all and who provided the media only with a few pre-taped videos. From the terrorists' point of view, it did not matter that bin Laden got a bad press in the United States and elsewhere. Singled-out, condemned, and warned by leaders such as President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Osama bin Laden was covered as much, or more frequently and lengthily, as the world's most influential legitimate leaders. This fact in itself was a smashing success from the perspective of bin Laden and his associates.

In sum, then, by attacking symbolic targets in America, killing several thousand Americans and causing tremendous damage to the American and international economy, the architects and perpetrators of this horror achieved their media-centered objectives in all respects.


In the days following the attack, when most Americans kept their televisions or radios tuned to the news during most or all of their waking hours, the public gave the media high grades for its reporting. Nearly nine in ten rated the performance of the news media as either excellent (56 percent) or good (33 percent). The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which keeps track of the relationship between the public and the news media, called this high approval rating "unprecedented." Five aspects in particular seemed to affect these high grades for the media:

First, the public appreciated the flow of information that was provided by television, radio, and print either directly or via media organizations' Internet sites. In the hours and days of the greatest distress, television and radio especially helped viewers and listeners to feel as if they were

involved in the unfolding news. People took some comfort in seeing and hearing the familiar faces and voices of news anchors and reporters as signs of the old normalcy in the midst of an incomprehensible crisis.

Second, people credited the news media, especially local television, radio, and newspapers in the immediately affected areas in and around New York, Washington, and the crash site in Pennsylvania, for assisting crisis managers to communicate important information to the public. For crisis managers the mass media offered the only effective means to keep the public from panicking and to tell people what to do and what not to do. In this respect, the media served the public interest in the best tradition of disaster coverage.

Third, Americans experienced a media - from celebrity anchors, hosts, and other stars to the foot-soldiers of the fourth estate - that abandoned cynicism, negativism, and attack journalism in favor of reporting, if not participating in, an outburst of civic spirit, unity, and patriotism. From one minute to another the press and the public seemed to reconnect after years in which media critics and pollsters recognized a growing disconnection.

Fourth, the news provided public spaces where audience members had the opportunity to converse with experts in various fields and with each other, or to witness question-and-answer exchanges between others. Whether in quickly arranged electronic town-hall meetings or call-in programs, there was no lack of interest on the part of television, radio, and on-line audiences in becoming involved in public discourse. Many news organizations facilitated the sudden thirst for dialogue. While television and radio were natural for these exchanges, newspapers and newsmagazines published exclusively, or mostly, letters-to-the-editor on this topic and reflected a wide range of serious and well-articulated opinions. Seldom, however, was the value of thoughtful moderators and professional gatekeepers more obvious than in the days and weeks after the terror nightmare. The least useful, often bigoted comments were posted on Internet sites and message boards.

Fifth, news consumers were spared the exasperation of watching reporters and camera-crews chasing survivors and relatives of victims, camping on front lawns, shoving microphones in front of people who wanted to be left alone. In the 1980s, when terrorists struck against Americans abroad, the media often pushed their thirst for tears, grief, tragedy, and drama to and even beyond the limits of professional journalism's ethics in their hunt for pictures and sound-bites. This time, however, many husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons of disaster victims spoke voluntarily to reporters, appeared voluntarily, and in many instances repeatedly, on local and national television to talk about their traumatic losses. Expressing one's innermost feelings, showing one's despair, crying controlled or sobbing out of control before cameras and microphones seemed natural in the communication culture of our time and in the age of so-called reality television and talkshows with a human touch a la Oprah Winfrey or Larry King.


Twelve days after the kamikaze I attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, media critic Marvin Kitman, commenting on the perhaps longest continuous breaking news events in the history of television, wrote that television "kept on showing those same pictures of the planes hitting, the buildings crumbling. I'm sure if I turned the TV on right now, the buildings would still be crumbling." While the initial emergency coverage deserved high marks, some of the "infotainment" habits that had increasingly made their way into television news crept back into the presentations of what screen banners called the "Attack on America" or "America Attacked." Recalling the rather trivial headlines and cover stories before 9-11, Howard Kurtz suggested early on that "suddenly, dramatically, unalterably the world has changed. And that means journalism will also change, indeed is changing before our eyes." As it turned out, this was wishful thinking. After the early hours and days there was simply not enough genuine news to fill twenty-four hours per day. As a result, television networks and stations took to replaying the scenes of horror again and again, revisiting the suffering of people over and over, searching for emotions beyond the boundaries of good taste. The shock over the events of 9-11 wore off quickly in the newsrooms, giving way to everyday routine. Some television anchors welcomed their audiences rather cheerfully to the "Attack on America" or "America's New War" and led into commercial breaks with the promise that they would be right back with "America's War on Terrorism" or with whatever the sound-bite slogan happened to be that day or week.

But the coverage raised far more serious questions about the proper role of a free press in a crisis. Three areas, in particular, proved problematic.

The first of these issues concerned the videotapes made of bin Laden and his lieutenants that al Qaeda made available to Al Jazeera. On October 7, shortly after President Bush had informed the nation of the first air raids against targets in Afghanistan, all five U.S. television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox News) broadcast an unedited feed from Al Jazeera that gave bin Laden and his associates access to the American public. Two days later, the three cable channels (CNN, Fox, and MSNBC) aired in full a statement by bin Laden's spokesman Suleiman Abu Gheith. Both tapes contained threats against Americans at home and abroad. Bin Laden said, "I swear to God that America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine and before all the army of infidels departs the land of Muhammad, peace be upon him." (Quoted in John Burns, "A Nation Challenged: The Wanted Man." New York Times, October 8, 2001, p. Al.) His spokesman warned that "the storms will not calm down, especially the storm of airplanes, until you see defeat in Afghanistan." He called on Muslims in the United States and Great Britain "not to travel by airplanes and not to live in high buildings or skyscrapers." (Quoted in Susan Sachs and Bill Carter, "A Nation Challenged: al Qaeda. Bin Laden Spokesman Threatens Westerners at Home and in The Gulf." New York Times, October 14, 2001, section 1B, p. 1.)

The Bush administration cautioned that these statements could contain coded messages that might cue bin Laden followers in the United States and elsewhere in the West to unleash more terror. But intelligence experts were unable to point to a particular suspect. While the administration's argument about these videotapes as vehicles for hidden messages was not credible, these tapes were certainly effective propaganda tools as were the transcripts that newspapers printed in full or as excerpts. The most damaging effect in the American setting was that these broadcasts further frightened an already traumatized public. Prodded by National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, who argued that the tapes could incite more violence against Americans abroad, the five television networks agreed to edit future tapes of this sort and eliminate "passages containing flowery rhetoric urging violence against Americans." This administration argument was just as weak as the suggestion of hidden signs contained in the tapes. After all, Al Jazeera and other television networks aired the material in the Middle East and other regions with Muslim populations.

While the argument that the press in a democracy needs to fully inform citizens, especially in times of crisis and great danger, has most weight here, it is also true that the media all the time make choices as to whom and what to include and exclude, or whom and what to feature more or less prominently in the news. In the case of the al Qaeda tapes, after the first ones were aired excessively by some cable networks, subsequent ones were under-covered. All of these videotapes should have been broadcast fully and printed entirely by newspapers. The public should have learned of bin Laden's propaganda without being exposed to endless replays.

The second issue concerned the media's sudden obsession with endlessly reporting and debating the potential for biological, chemical, and nuclear terror-- warfare in the wake of the traditional terror of 9-11. As real and would-be experts filled the air waves, some hosts and anchors were unable to hide their pro-scare bias and their preference for guests who painted doomsday scenarios. And this was before the first anthrax case in Florida made the news on October 4, 2001. It was as if people in the newsrooms and their experts were waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then came the news of a Florida man dying of anthrax and of subsequent cases. In less than a month, the television networks covered or mentioned the anthrax terror in hundreds of segments. The leading newspapers published even more stories on anthrax and on other possible threats from biological and chemical agents. To be sure, the most serious bio-terrorism attacks in the United States deserved lead-- story prominence and serious, regular, in-depth coverage, but not an army of talking heads who beat the topic to death many times over. In the process public officials who tried to mask their own confusion, experts who scared the public, and media stars and nonstars who overplayed the anthrax card contributed to a general sentiment of fear and uncertainty. This overkill was not lost on everyone inside the media. Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post warned "that our new obsession with terrorism will make us its unwitting accomplices. We will become (and have already partly become) merchants of fear. Case in point: the anthrax fright. Until now, anthrax has been a trivial threat to public health and safety . . ."

Not many in the media listened.

Finally, in taking a softer stand vis-a-vis the President, administration officials, members of Congress, and officials at lower levels of government, the news media made the right choice in the face of a crisis that presented the country with problems it had never faced before. But suspending the adversarial stance of normal times is one thing; not to report on public officials' questionable decisions is another. When the House of Representatives stopped its work after anthrax spores had been found in Senator Tom Daschle's office but not yet in the lower chamber of Congress, the New York Post called members "Wimps" in a huge front-page headline and chided representatives because they had "chicken[ed] out" and "headed for the hills yesterday at the first sign of anthrax in the Capitol" (Deborah Orin and Brian Blomquist, "Anthrax Plays to Empty House." New York Post, October 18, 2001, p. 5). While the choice of words was not the best, the substance proved on the mark in the following days, when more government offices in Washington from Capitol Hill to the Supreme Court were closed while thousands of fearful postal workers in Washington, New York, and New Jersey were told to continue working because the anthrax traces in their buildings and on their mail-sorting machines did not pose any danger to their health. At the time, two postal workers in Washington had already died of anthrax inhalation, and several others had been diagnosed with less-lethal cases. Yet, by and large the news media showed no appetite to question what looked like a double standard.

In the face of an ongoing terrorism crisis at home and a counterterrorism campaign abroad, the mainstream watchdog press refrained from barking in the direction of public officials. Only when public-opinion polls signaled in late October and early November that the American public was far less satisfied with the Bush administration's handling of the homeland defense in the face of anthrax bio-terrorism than with its military campaign abroad, some columnists, journalists, and editorial writers returned to asking questions that needed to be answered and voicing criticism that needed to be expressed. This was a signal that the news media began to slowly reclaim their watchdog role with respect to domestic politics and policies.

While nobody yearned for the return of the attack-dog media, the revival of a critical approach was, at last, a hopeful development and a signal that the terrorist assaults on America had failed in one respect: Even political violence of this magnitude did not for long defeat the watchdog function of the news media.

[Author Affiliation]

Brigitte L. Nacos has a two-track career in both journalism and political science. As a journalist she has worked for many years as U.S. correspondent for publications in Germany, but she has curtailed her journalistic activity in order to have time to teach and do research. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University, where she has taught American government for more than a dozen years. Her particular fields of interest include: the role of the mass media in American politics and government; the linkages among terrorism, the mass media, public opinion, and crisis management; and domestic and international terrorism, anti- and counterterrorism. Her books include Terrorism and the Media: From the Iran Hostage Crisis to the Oklahoma City Bombing (Columbia University Press, 1996) and Mass-Mediated Terrorism: The Central Role of the Media in Terrorism and Counterterrorism (forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield).

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