Orange agents

During a week of war fever, the news media gave rein to hysteria -- and, critics say, let color-coded terror alerts serve the White House agenda.

Published February 16, 2003 1:10AM (EST)

With the run on duct tape apparently subsiding for now, Americans may look back on the week past as their most unnerving since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Osama bin Laden, or someone who sounded very much like him, issued a new call for suicide attacks against Western targets. Top intelligence officials told Congress that new attacks may be imminent. Missile launchers were deployed around the nation's capital. The White House declared an orange alert, one step short of the most urgent red alert.

With all of the threats and warnings and alerts, with all the talk of war, no wonder an anxious nation was obsessed with defending against a biological or chemical attack. Today, 82 percent of Americans believe a terrorist attack is "likely" in the next few months, according to a CBS/New York Times poll.

The emotional turmoil was dutifully captured in the press, and then some. Cable outlets went wall-to-wall with coverage of a disaster that hadn't happened yet, as if the news had been transformed into the reality show "Fear Factor."

"We may very well get hit, let's hope we survive it," said Morton Kondracke on the Fox News Channel. "With terrorists out there, how scared should you be?" asked CNN. Suddenly, experts displayed the hottest models of gas masks, the way toy gurus usually run down the must-have gifts during the Christmas buying season; endless what-if chatter about possible terrorist attacks replaced the kind of hype that usually comes with the approach of a Category 5 hurricane.

Dozens of papers nationwide last weekend used the orange alert as their lead story, even though the government offered only vague reasons for raising the alarm. And through the week, news radio urgently reported that a suspicious truck had been stopped on the Whitestone Bridge in New York, or that a suspicious small boat had been spotted in the pre-dawn gloaming near the base of the Bay Bridge that spans from Oakland, Calif., to San Francisco.

But even in reporting such news, the news media didn't provide a good service over the past week, many journalism experts say, and their performance in recent days doesn't bode well for what's to come if the nation goes to war, as expected, in Iraq.

In a time of almost unprecedented anxiety, journalists appeared to be having trouble with their equilibrium as they tried to report official terrorism warnings without exploiting that fear to attract more readers, listeners and viewers. And, some critics say, the press seemed to be willing partners for an administration that might be interested in building fear and transforming it into support for war.

Many critics boiled the issue down to a couple of simple questions: In a climate of war, when the government has a clear interest in manipulating public opinion, what are the obligations of journalists to the audience?

"Journalists should be asking that question because this whole thing could be a means by which to boost public opinion for a war the federal government wants to fight," says Robert J. Thompson, professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

Other are more blunt. "We're living in the middle of an ad campaign for war and the press has bought it. In fact, it's helping write the script," says John R. MacArthur, author of "The Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War." "The terrorism warnings are a strategy designed to put the country on war footing in order to invade Iraq."

Those warnings have come fast and furious. CIA chief George Tenet, after months of refusing to sign off on the White House strategy linking al-Qaida and Saddam, suddenly warned Congress the agency had strong evidence to prove that terrorist connection. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced attacks could coincide with the recent conclusion of the Muslim hajj pilgrimage -- that tip was later deemed to be bogus -- while FBI director Robert Mueller reported hundreds of al-Qaida members were hiding inside America waiting to attack.

"The media are to an extent marketing fear, but fear is what the story is about," notes Thompson. And few would suggest the warnings, along with the bin Laden tape, weren't news events. But when Fox News Channel and MSNBC plaster a "High Alert" logo permanently on their screens, does that inform viewers or more cynically scare them and induce them to keep watching?

At issue is how far should the press go in conveying the government's stated sense of urgency, and to what extent should journalists temper the alarm with skepticism and a sober tone. Predictably, media leaders and their critics disagree.

"When you have government officials warning of potential danger we have no choice but to report it, and then try to do reporting on how to cope with it," says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio Television News Directors Association. "I don't think it's being done to try to boost ratings."

"That terror alert logo is totally inexcusable," says Norm Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and author of the book "Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You." "There's no plausible explanation other than an attempt to ratchet up the hysteria level in hopes it draws attention."

An information vacuum created by the government has also helped spread the fear, says Robert Zelnick, a former Pentagon reporter for ABC News who now chairs the journalism department at Boston University. "It's amazing how panicked people can get when the government puts the country on high alert but doesn't provide any specific guidance. That leads the press to do speculative stories and causes people to run out and buy duct tape, which then in itself becomes a story."

Critics charge that the media fell down by not putting the recent warnings in context or asking tough questions. "The press is not providing a greater understanding. We're compounding the anxiety and hysteria people have," says Calvin Sims, the former New York Times Tokyo correspondent who recently taught Media Coverage of Terrorism at Home and Abroad at Princeton University. "Nearly 18 months after 9/11, the reporting today on domestic terrorism warnings should be much more sophisticated. I'd give it a B-."

Reporters also placed too much emphasis on the dramatic congressional testimony by the heads of the CIA and FBI, says Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief. He notes those presentations didn't happen because threatening new terrorist information had just been uncovered. Instead, they're prescheduled annual events.

"It's the kitchen-sink briefing," he says. "They lay out every possible target that could be hit and then if anything were to happen they could say, 'We were aware of the threat.' And any federal official who goes up to testify now, after what happened before 9/11, they emphasize worst-case scenario. But the press hasn't picked up on that context."

The context is becoming increasingly important, because with polls still showing a majority of Americans uneasy about starting a war with Iraq prematurely, any attempt to sway opinion via terrorism warnings could have profound, lasting effects.

"It certainly dovetails nicely with what would be useful for a pre-war propaganda blitz," says Solomon.

But Boston Globe editor Martin Baron argues that's not the job of his staff to assess whether information is propaganda. "We can't ascribe motive of the administration," he says. "Our first objective is to reporting and gathering fact. I'm not aware of any reporting that suggests that's the motive of the administration."

Still, time and again over the last eight days, solid reporting could have helped relieve some of the anxiety surrounding terrorism threats, instead of heighten it. For instance, the Pentagon's decision to deploy Avenger surface-to-air missile launchers around Washington, D.C., clearly ratcheted up the panic level. The New York Daily News simply reported they were to "protect prime targets -- the White House, Congress and the Pentagon -- from an aerial attack."

But an aerial attack from whom? The newspaper never asked. Saddam's air force is small and battered, and bin Laden has no air force at all. Neither has missiles that can reach America. Of course, al-Qaida successfully turned commercial jets into missiles. But if 17 months after 9/11 the government is placing surface-to-air missile launchers to shoot down hijacked planes, what does that say about the progress of the war on terrorism? The press seems less interested in that debate.

Another example was the release of bin Laden's anti-American audiotape, which certainly added to the nation's mood of dread. The White House had urged television broadcasters and newspaper publishers to downplay earlier bin Laden tapes because, in part, his speeches might include "hidden messages" instructions to al-Qaida cells. This time the administration openly hyped the tape's release, with Secretary of State Colin Powell insisting the tape proved al-Qaida was "in partnership with Iraq."

Taking its cue from the White House, Fox broke precedent and played the tape in full. Leaving no doubt as to its allegiance, Fox News vice president John Moody explained to the Washington Post: "We shared the editorial judgment of the secretary of state in thinking that this was potentially a statement that would make a connection between al-Qaida and Iraq." [Emphasis added.]

What Moody and everyone else eventually discovered was that bin Laden dismissed Saddam as a communist and a nonbeliever, contradicting Powell's assertion of a terrorist partnership.

Nonetheless, Powell's charge was the headline of the day. And a great many misinformed Americans believe al-Qaida and Iraq are joined in a league of terror.

"The White House got the press coverage it wanted," says Judith Matloff, a journalism professor at Columbia University who teaches a course on war coverage. Indeed, a Page 1 story in the next day's New York Times about a possible bin Laden-Saddam connection never mentioned that the audiotape failed to back up Powell's assertion.

"The tape contributed to raising anxiety among Americans," says Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And when people get anxious, they favor strong military action. They want their government to do something."

While some of the news coverage seems to reflect a primal press reflex, there are Bush allies in the press who appear to be fanning the fear intentionally, perhaps believing that they are performing a service for the public, and for history. "We are in a race against time," Washington Post hawk Charles Krauthammer intoned. If Iraq is not invaded soon, he warned, "2003 could be as cataclysmic as 1914 or 1939."

But when the press is insufficiently skeptical, the risk is clear. And in at least a couple of high-profile cases in recent months, the press has been duped by White House terrorism tips that turned out to be wrong. Yet reporters dutifully assume each new administration revelation based on secret intelligence will be solid.

Appearing on PBS's "Charlie Rose," New York Times correspondent Patrick Tyler assured the host that recent terrorism warnings were being handled in a "professional" and "conservative" way by the administration. But just days later, ABC News reported that the cornerstone piece of information Ashcroft used to raise the terror alert to "high" was manufactured by an unreliable source.

"The person was vetted after Ashcroft used the information to raise the terrorism threat level to orange, and law enforcement determined it was fabricated," reports Cannistraro.

Late last December, Americans' blood pressure rose when the press reported the FBI was in pursuit of five would-be terrorists who had slipped across the Canadian border. Officials feared the Middle Eastern men might be planning a New Year's Eve attack. The story received massive media play. Fox News was breathless: "Coming up: At least five suspected terrorists are on the run in the U.S.! Is there any way to find them?"

Over a one-week period, Fox may have devoted 30 on-air hours to the story. But the Canadian terrorist story turned out to be a fraud. The FBI suspended its search for the five men after it became suspicious that the source of the rumor, an accused immigrant-smuggler doing time in a Canadian prison, made up the story in hopes of getting outstanding federal counterfeit changes against him dropped in New York. Later, one of the five men turned out to be in Pakistan -- and he said he'd never visited North America.

"It's like going to temple, and I shouldn't complain because I used to be in the temple," says Cannistraro. "But it's the all-secretive intelligence information. Reporters burn incense on the altar and the intelligence answers come, but you can't question them."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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Cia Cnn Fox News Iraq Middle East Msnbc Osama Bin Laden Terrorism The New York Times