We’ve just finished, mostly, another press extravaganza with the liquid bomber scare (LBS). That makes it a good time to analyze the features of a genuine press campaign, why it is effective, and what are the mechanisms it uses to succeed, as the LBS undoubtedly did.
I’m going to concentrate on the print media as available on the internet, my fragile psyche isn’t ready for the hours of Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN that would be necessary to tackle the tube, and Google is a great resource for the analyst.
So, what happened?
Thursday, August 10, the British Home Secretary, John Reid announced the arrests. The threat level was raised to critical. The police said that the plot would have caused ‘mass murder on an unimaginable scale.
Air travel in Britain came to a halt that in America was severely impacted as liquids were banned.
Headlines were loud and basically unanimous, a dire threat had been averted due to the vigilance of British, American and Pakistani law enforcement. Air travel was frustrating when possible at all, but travelers were convinced that the measures were necessary and kept their upper lips properly stiff. The nefarious plotters had been about to strike, police had heard alarming ‘chatter’ that forced them to round ‘em up. It all would have happened in ‘a few days’.
A supplementary slew of articles ‘analyzed’ the discovery of a new threat to air travel. The article ‘Plot highlights vulnerability of aviation security’ was the McClatchy version; AP had ‘Terrorist have sniffed out our weak spots’.
Sufficiently terrorized by the news, we were now softened up for the politicians and pundits. August 11 DHS supercop Chertoff went on O’Reilly, killing two birds with one stone. Guiliani said that ‘we will be attacked’.
As stated by many, the foiled attacks showed that ‘we were still at war’, presumably on ‘terror’. Bush, of course, linked it to the war in Iraq, the war in Lebanon, the war in Afghanistan, and our need to be ever vigilant and to promote ‘freedom’. He moved the term ‘Islamic fascist’ out of the closet into the spotlight.
So what were the elements of the LBS?
- Public announcements by law enforcement.
- Severe restrictions on travel.
- Media overwhelming repeating the above, with analysis of the ‘new’ danger.
- Politicians and pundits tell us how we’re in danger, the war on terror is still being fought, and we need new ‘tools’ to counter the threats.
- This is a confirmation of the GWOT worldview, the lens that everything needs to be examined under. I couldn’t find any mainstream press that could dispute that. The right-wing blogs trumpet it, the left-wing moderates agree, though they still cannot figure out what Iraq has to do with it.
It’s five days later now, and thing are returning to ‘normal’. The CNN front page tells us the good people of the Gulf Coast are screwed (hurricane insurance covers wind, not water), Barbaro’s on the comeback trail, and we’re told why Oprah and Superman are dogged by gay rumors. If you dig further, you can find out that the terror alert has been reduced but not removed.
So what happened?
- Some people got arrested.
- This caused a terror alert.
- End of story.
It’s the ending that’s really the kicker. It all just peters out. But, whatever the results of the investigation into the alleged terrorists, the effect will be the same: heightened fear, public acquiescence to further restrictions, political exploitation by those in power.
No one ever asks in the media, "Did it have to be done this way? Why was it done this way?". Well, my answer, as you may have guessed, is that it’s done that way to maximize the effect on the public. To that end, the press campaign is a necessary tool of power, especially in western democracies. It is necessary, now and then, to drown out other voices and other thoughts. So run along now.