Packaging Terrorism: Co-opting the News for Politics and Profit

Susan Moeller
Blackwell Publishing
A Review by Carina Schorske

Terrorism is theater”: this famous aphorism, coined by Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, is perhaps our best working definition of the t-word. As Susan Moeller correctly emphasizes in her impassioned book, Packaging Terrorism: Co-Opting the News for Politics and Profit, there is very little agreement about most aspects of today’s biggest and baddest “ism.” In fact, a 1988 study by the United States Army found that over 100 definitions of the word “terrorism” have been used, and they have only continued to proliferate. Is terrorism a tactic or an ideology? Is it a crime or an act of war? Though Moeller provides patient and thorough answers from an astonishing variety of perspectives, her greatest service is in asking the questions at all. The word “terrorism” has a talismanic power to deflect inquiry; it is so freighted with human tragedy on the one hand and political power on the other that to ask what it means feels almost impudent.

Moeller reveals the dangers of trying to define global phenomena whose motives and effects cannot be expressed in purely poetic terms - in part because the goal of terrorism itself is explicitly poetic, as it seeks to maximize its symbolic impact above and beyond its physical impact on direct victims. Moeller tells us that this is the foundation of terrorism’s special, symbiotic relationship with the media. Without code-red publicity, an act of terror is reduced to “some rather ordinary event” of the kind “that kill[s] a few random people with quiet and depressing regularity in such places as Northern Ireland or Indonesia or Israel.” And without the threat that an act of terror inspires, the news media worries it will lose its hold on its audience. So even though books about media bias are a dime a dozen, Moeller’s is significant insofar as it pinpoints this explosive intersection.

But Moeller’s book is deliberately unexplosive in its style. It neither functions nor sounds quite like an expose since her work exposes not the news media in bed with political interests, so much as Western society in a crisis of communication. Moeller articulates the fears that contribute to this crisis. News media, afraid of losing its audience, assumes it must keep our pulses high and our focus narrow. The government is afraid that it will sound soft on terror - to the ears of its citizens, enemies, and allies - unless it condemns it in simple terms as an ideological, rather than a political problem. And citizens are afraid to hear anything that might suggest that their children are dying in an unjust, unnecessary, or unwinnable conflict. These fears are especially crippling for the journalist, whose job is to investigate and report on world affairs. Moeller’s book is filled with examples of the compromises required to maintain minimum standards of accuracy in a generally anti-investigative atmosphere. Even newspapers with a history of breaking uncomfortable stories have tread very lightly, as though the whole conversation about terror were landmined:

“…the Washington Post was careful to put quotation marks around the ‘We Found’ in its front-page headline saying ‘Bush: ‘We Found’ Banned Weapons.’ To a reporter those small marks were red flags that the statement was not a fact but an assertion. To most readers, however, those marks were invisible. Readers could easily take away the impression that the President had announced that WMD had been found.” (pg. 87)

And readers did. Moeller was not the first to cite the 2005 Harris Poll which showed that 36 percent of American adults still believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, even after Bush himself admitted that none had been found. Still more - 47 percent - believed Hussein had a direct role in planning 9/11. Though a pair of quotation marks in a Washington Post headline may seem trivial, Moeller argues that it is the accumulation of these tiny compromises and evasions that has led the public so astray in its understanding of global terror.

The book sometimes reads like a laundry list of media decisions which collectively determine how a news item is perceived. Is an event treated analytically, in editorials and long articles, or is it given the “straight scoop”? Is it on the front page or buried deep in the paper? How accurately does the headline reflect the content of the article? Is the word “terrorist” deployed? Other media decisions, like that of former CNN chairman Walter Isaacson, are more explicit; Moeller reveals that in October 2001, Isaacson “wrote a memo to his staff members that ordered them to balance the broadcast images of civilian devastation in Afghanistan with reminders of the American lives lost at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon”. This fact is remarkable, but Moeller flies on to the next example of media bias, as though the strength of her argument depends on the sheer amount of evidence she can muster. And thus her book sometimes has the flavor of the TV news outlets she bemoans - short, noisy clips and fast cuts that render the intense material trivial.

There is, however, a countervailing current: Moeller is at her most powerful, when, like her adversaries, she frames the media’s dilemma in terms as stark as Bush’s infamous “with us or against us.” But unlike the rhetoric she criticizes, Moeller’s binaries command our attention because they stand out against the background of her exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) collection of data. Perhaps surprisingly, given Moeller’s passion for the nuts and bolts of journalism, her biggest disappointment with today’s media is not how they cover events, but what events they cover: “The media’s choice of what to cover falls roughly into two categories: 1) Cover what everyone else in your market is covering. 2) Cover something different.” Is it too obvious to say there’s more of 1 than 2, and that what “everyone else is covering” is more likely to be the Palin/Obama “lipstick on a pig” gaffe than the status of reconstruction efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans or the staggering civilian death toll in Afghanistan?

This fundamental choice of what to cover holds a greater significance in the post-Bush era. The Obama administration has stressed transparency, and there has been an outpouring of belated national indignation over the sins of the Bush years, not least among them the media’s complicity in the government’s warmongering. The New York Times referred to the early years of the War on Terror as “a perfect storm of ignorance and enthusiasm” in which it, too, had been swept up, a description that sounds hand-picked from Packaging Terrorism. Moeller is right to warn that both the news media and its audience tend to toe the government line when in doubt - or more significantly, in fear. Outrage occurs too late to interrupt or revise the dominant political narrative. What would it take for all participants in the media crisis which is ultimately just a reflection of the global crisis it describes to voice their concerns when the other players in the crisis - whether they be the news, the government, or the citizenry - do not share them? Ironically, in order to better understand global discord, we must learn to tolerate more discord in our conversation about it. If Moeller’s book resonates with readers, it will not be as the last word on the media’s coverage of terror, but rather as the first of many.

Packaging Terrorism investigates how American media have identified and covered international terrorism and violence since September 11, 2001.