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Violence In Mass Media

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Mass media has made a dramatic contribution to the American public’s opinion and daily views. Everyone remembers where they were when they saw the first coverage of the twin towers coming down. Everyone remembers because they saw it over and over, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Everyone remembers the country coming together in response to a terroristic threat, that the media pummeled into the brains of the American public. Everyone remembers the beginning of the war, and the day that President Bush stood on that Navy ship and proclaimed victory. Mass media has had an impact as never before, with journalists embedded with soldiers in the fight

. Following the events of 9/11, the politics of fear made its way back into the limelight, with the assistance of the mass media. The politics of fear is not new to Americans. Communism was stated as a threat to our national security. But the politics of fear has gained tremendous strength in the past 5 years, as our media reminds us daily, 24/7. According to Matthew Baum, this change has occurred since the 1980s. This change has occurred with the way that mass media has responded to world events and the way in which they present them to the American public. What the public learns about these events has changed as a direct result of the impact of the mass media.

“More media outlets cover major events than in the past, including the entertainment-oriented soft news media. When they do cover a political story, soft news outlets focus more on ‘human drama’ than traditional news media – especially the character and motivations of decision-makers, as well as individual stories of heroism or tragedy – and less on the political or strategic context, or substantive nuances, of policy debates.” (Baum, 2006, 1) Incorporating this human drama has attracted many Americans who previously ignored most political news, by way of soft news media.

Baum highlights several changes that have occurred, particularly with the soft news media: • More media outlets cover major political events than in the past, including the entertainment-oriented soft news media. • When they do cover a political story, soft news shows do so differently than the traditional news media, focusing more on ‘human drama’- and especially the character and motivations of decision-makers- as well as individual stories of heroism or tragedy, and less on the political or strategic context, or substance, of policy debates. • Many Americans who previously ignored politics now attend to some information about major political events, such as wars, via the soft news media.

• Less-politically engaged Americans who learn about major events from the soft news media are more suspicious of the motives of political leaders and less supportive of their policies than their non-soft-news-consuming, or more politically engaged counterparts. (Baum, 2006, 6) According to Baum, the entertainment industry has introduced soft news programs because they make foreign policy more palatable by making it entertaining. Doing so makes this information more appealing to the general public, and as a result raises public attention to foreign policy crises. “No political event better exemplified this process or its implications than the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which the mass media, most notably CNN, transformed into one of the most successful ongoing television sagas of all time.” (Baum, 2006, 12)

The following quote from Danny Schechter, a former producer at CNN and ABC’s news magazine show 20/20, illustrates this point: “It started with the Gulf War – the packaging of news, the graphics, the music, the classification of stories. . .Everybody benefited by saturation coverage. The more channels, the more a sedated public will respond to this . . . If you can get an audience hooked, breathlessly awaiting every fresh disclosure with a recognizable cast of characters they can either love or hate, with a dramatic arc and a certain coming down to a deadline, you have a winner in terms of building audience.” (Baum, 2006, 7)

Harold Lasswell spoke of this power of the media. “The danger springs from the deliberate control of news by modern propagandists. The citizen depends upon what he can see and hear, and if his supply of information is poisoned at the source for partisan purposes, the conscientious democrat may be the innocent dupe of interests for which he has no sympathy. An axiom of democracy is that it depends upon public opinion founded on free access to facts. The citizen of our day wonders if there are any facts or only rival frauds.” (Lasswell, 1941, 35) The government and the military understands their ability to influence the public through the use of mass media.

The manner in which the media portrays terrorism increases fear within the audience and generates support for the government. The process of embedding journalists with military units is used a means of controlling what journalists are allowed to report on. By choosing which units a reporter is embedded with the military can control which parts of the war will receive military coverage. In addition, journalists who are embedded with soldiers are more likely to back what those soldiers are doing and present them in a positive light.

The manner in which the military has been involved in conflicts demonstrates the important role they play in international matters. This is done in an attempt to ensure that the American people feel that the government and the military are keeping us safe, therefore maintaining the power over the American public. It has often been said that every conflict is fought on at least two grounds: the battlefield and the minds of the people via propaganda. “The good guys and the bad guys can often both be guilty of misleading their people with distortions, exaggerations, subjectivity, inaccuracy and even fabrications, in order to receive support and a sense of legitimacy.

Propaganda can serve to rally people behind a cause, but often at the cost of exaggerating, misrepresenting, or even lying about the issues in order to gain that support.” (www.globalissues.org) Johann Galtung, a professor of Peace Studies, identified points of concern regarding journalism and propaganda as summarized below: • Decontextualizing violence: focusing on the irrational without looking at the reasons for unresolved conflicts and polarization. • Dualism: reducing the number of parties in a conflict to two, when often more are involved. Stories that just focus on internal developments often ignore such outside or “external” forces as foreign governments and transnational companies.

• Manicheanism: portraying one side as good and demonizing the other as “evil.” • Armageddon: presenting violence as inevitable, omitting alternatives. • Focusing on individual acts of violence while avoiding structural causes, like poverty, government neglect and military or police repression. • Confusion: focusing only on the conflict arena (i.e., the battlefield or location of violent incidents) but not on the forces and factors that influence the violence. • Excluding and omitting the bereaved, thus never explaining why there are acts of revenge and spirals of violence. • Failure to explore the causes of escalation and the impact of media coverage itself. • Failure to explore the goals of outside interventionists, especially big powers.

• Failure to explore peace proposals and offer images of peaceful outcomes. • Confusing cease-fires and negotiations with actual peace. • Omitting reconciliation: conflicts tend to reemerge if attention is not paid to efforts to heal fractured societies. When news about attempts to resolve conflicts are absent, fatalism is reinforced. That can help engender even more violence, when people have no images or information about possible peaceful outcomes and the promise of healing. (www.globalissues.org) The Pentagon has a great deal of influence on Hollywood. “Military documents were released in 2001 that illuminated the influence of the Pentagon on Hollywood, showing how producers have been willing to alter plots (often to present U.S. forces in a more heroic light) in order to gain access to expensive military hardware and property.” (Lacy, 2003, 1)

The military cooperated with the making of films such as Air Force One, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Top Gun, The Hunt for Red October, Behind Enemy Lines, and Golden Eye. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the Pentagon arranged a conference with Hollywood directors, screenwriters, and producers to influence what they would produce. (Lacy, 2003) “The cinema becomes a space where commonsense ideas about global politics and history are (re)produced and where stories about what is acceptable behavior from states and individuals are naturalized and legitimated. It is a space where myths about history and the origins of the state are told to a populist audience.

One can think of the contemporary war films–such as U-571 and We Were Soldiers–that rewrite history into one where historical and moral ambiguity are replaced by certainty.” (Lacy, 2003, 1) Dr. Edward J. Epstein, says that the three national network news programs are loaded with bias, due in large part to the liberal views of a small group of men who have final authority about what is actually broadcast. He makes the following points: 1. Virtually all our national news is filtered through and controlled by a group of men in one city, New York. 2. Most national-news footage is drawn from just four metropolitan centers – New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles.

3. National “news” is, in fact, routinely created by starting with general hypothesis rather than actual happenings. 4. Events that are visually exciting are more likely to get air time than others which may be equally or more significant. (www.globalsecurity.org) The politics of fear is dependent on the media. The Administration relies on the media to spread its image of impending doom. Impending doom holds the public attention and enables the public to grant the President limitless powers to do what he needs to do, in order to keep the American public safe. “There is no question that President Bush is dedicated to winning this war on terror, and that one of the most glorious days in world history was the voting by millions of Iraqis very literally risking their own lives and safety for democracy.

But what’s always on my mind about this country, even as Mr. Bush continues to believe that “inherent powers” enable him to become the sole law of the land, is what federal Circuit Court Judge Damon Keith said in August 2000, when Attorney General John Ashcroft closed all deportation hearings to the press and public: Democracy dies behind closed doors.” (Hentoff, 2006, 1) Following the attacks of 9/11, the objectivity of the media disappeared. Following the legislative action approving the Patriot Act, the media failed to fill in the blanks for the American public. The Patriot Act was not questioned. It was simply stated as fact.

The media failed to question the need for secrecy and power on the part of government and did not address the loss of civil liberties among American citizens. “Very few news reports discussed the dangers involved in pushing aside civil liberties during a national crisis. In fact, most stories about the country’s response were positive. The military strikes were reported as necessary and effective, and the USA Patriot Act was hailed as a unified nation’s quick response to the terrorist strike.”

The American media took on the role of promoting the success of America in its war against terrorism, and evil-doers. The media failed to question why the terrorist attacks occurred. “In the climate of fear and jingoism that followed the September 11 attacks, the media deemed it best to provide the public with positive stories about the government and its strategies for opposing terrorism. The deconstructing of a document titled the USA Patriot Act so soon after such a horrendous attack on American soil must have seemed unthinkable. Most mainstream media simply reported that the legislation had passed. There was little debate about the Patriot Act’s provisions during a time when even a member of Congress would provoke cries of heresy by questioning the President’s request for additional powers to catch the evil-doers.”

The process of fear-mongering has become commonplace in politics and particularly in political elections. Some individuals have stated that “fear has become Bush’s favorite weapon of choice, and accuse him of systematically manipulating the public’s fear of terrorism since 9/11 in order to strengthen his administration’s authority. The post-9/11 curbs on civil rights, such as the Patriot Act, have been discussed as symptoms of this trend towards domination through fear.” (Foredi, 2004) According to Foredi, governments use fear to sustain their authority. It has been utilized over and over again. Earlier generations before feared communism and nuclear war. News reports warn the public of such things as bird flu, global warming, terroristic threats, weapons of mass destruction.

Fear is a powerful motivator for the public to take notice. “Politics has internalized the culture of fear. So political disagreements are often over which risk the public should worry about the most. British politics is currently dominated by debates about the fear of terror, the fear of food, the fear of asylum seekers, the fear of anti-social behavior, fears over children, fear about health, fear for the environment, fear for our pensions, fears over the future of Europe. The politics of fear transcends the political divide.” (Foredi, 2004)

News reports are filled with work-place violence, deadly illnesses, homicides, and threats to national security, to name a few. Even gay marriage is a threat to our way of life. Those who choose not to believe these threats are considered to be a threat to the American way of life. “Either you are with us or against us.” (George W. Bush, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007) “This fear-mongering is the stuff of color-coded alerts, speeches rife with promises of big turban-covered, germ-carrying boogiemen looming on every corner and contradictory phrases like, “anticipatory self-defense.”

This is not to minimize the very real threats out there; as we know they are there for sure. It is to point out that our fear is being exploited–very effectively in the psyches of a lot of people.” (Norris, 2002) The media focuses their reports on fear and terrorism, and through the use of framing and repetition, not only supports the politics of fear, but spreads the politics of fear. According to David Altheide, the use of fear in headlines has increased from 30% to 150% over a 7-10 year period. Altheide believes that the media and the Administration use fear to promote a sense of disorder, and the belief that things are out of control.

Take for example, the story of a soldier who is shot outside of his apartment building after returning from the Gulf War. The media presented this story as the streets of America are more dangerous than a war zone. The media believed that they had an ideal story: • It deserved major play • It would hold readers and viewers attention • The victims are innocent, creating in the minds of the public that this could happen to them at anytime • The events have social significance, suggesting a societal crisis What the media didn’t say in their story, is that the soldier’s wife and brother killed him for the insurance money.

While a tragic story, this was not a random act of violence, and the likelihood that it could happen to “anyone” simply did not exist. In order to effectively organize a story based on fear and trauma the media focuses on an element of shock. Framing the story of the American soldier who returned from war safely, and then killed on the streets of America, provides an element of shock. Repetition is used to drill this story into the minds of the American public, so that they will not forget. The news is reported to us twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If the information provided by reporters is not information enough, the ticker that runs across the bottom of the screen is sure to provide the repetition that the media desires.

To accompany this fear driven media reporting, is the desire of the network CEO’s to maintain the relationship with the current Administration. According to Goodman and Goodman (2004): “This past spring the war in Iraq became a constant subject of The Memo. ….. The Memo warned us that antiwar protesters would be `whining’ about U.S. bombs killing Iraqi civilians, and suggested they could tell that to the families of American soldiers dying there. Editing copy that morning, I was not surprised when an eager young producer killed a correspondent’s report on the day’s fighting—simply because it included a brief shot of children in an Iraqi hospital” (Goodman & Goodman, 2004, 156).

This type of sensationalism, combined with the lack of diversity in the management of network news, keeps the stories strong, and the public worried. “The lack of diversity behind the news helps explain the lack of diversity in the news. In 2001, the media watchers Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) looked at who appeared on the evening news on ABC, CBS, and NBC. Ninety-two percent of all U.S. sources interviewed were white, 85 percent were male, and where party affiliation was identifiable, 75 percent were Republican” (Goodman and Goodman, 2004, 153).

The Iraq war is just one example of the exploitive nature of the media and the Administration. In response to the threat of terrorism, public service announcements were created to warn the public of the need to develop an emergency plan, in the event of biological warfare. These warnings included the need to determine how a family will prepare their children, how they would contact each other in the event that such a national emergency would take place. These warnings were aired with the same type of commonality as that of a tornado warning. These warnings are likely to create, in the minds of the public, the notion that biological warfare is now as likely as a summer storm.

The warnings of the Department of Homeland Security to purchase enough duct tape, plastic, and food and water, to sustain the public in their homes, should biological warfare occur, sustains the need for the department. The media provides us with warnings about the impending doom of the millennium, and the lack of preparedness that will create situations where people have no access to electricity, or water. This warning sent masses of the American public to their local hardware stores to purchase generators, buy surplus amounts of bottled water, and large stores of food. The media has continued to support the Bush Administration and their rhetoric, adding on sensationalism, when the story itself, did not provide enough.

The media, prompted by the Administration to support the war effort, against the threat of weapons of mass destruction, occurred in a vacuum, without question. Maintaining this sense of disorder and chaos, provides the type of control that the Administration is looking for. The constant reminders, that “If we don’t fight them there (the terrorists), we will have to fight them here.” The last presidential election is a clear demonstration of the leverage that this fear creates.

During the election of 2004, President Bush and the Republican party created media images that warned the public of the “dangers” of electing John Kerry as president. Bush told the public that if John Kerry were to be elected President, we would see national disasters that equaled or exceeded the attacks of 9/11. “With both campaigns embracing what often amounts to the politics of fear, voters are getting a heavier-than-ever dose of speeches and television ads from Bush, Kerry and political groups designed to convince them the other ticket would make the world more dangerous and increase the likelihood of casualties or catastrophe” (VandeHei and Kurtz, 2004, A1). This tactic is not new, but in light of events, like 9/11, has become more effective in recent years.

Bush repeatedly portrayed the image that John Kerry could not be trusted to keep the public safe. Bush wanted to view Kerry as being weak on terrorism. One such ad read, “Weakness invites those who would do us harm” (VandeHei and Kurtz, 2004, A1). Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University’s College of Communication, stated, “It’s not surprising that both campaigns are looking for the leverage point: scaring the hell out of the American public about what would happen if the other guy wins” (VandeHei and Kurtz, 2004, A1).

This fear is what President Bush has used to continue to expand his executive powers, even when it is illegal. Wiretapping the American public, without a court order, he sold as a necessity to keep the country safe. Recently granted the approval to open the mail of American citizens, without question, again approved without question. This method is effective for the Administration and will continue to be unless questioned by the American public. Fear-based politics works, and because it is effective, it will continue to be used.

Invoking a sense of fear in the American public tends to lead people beyond what is rational thought. In light of terrorism, and the potential of attacks similar to that of 9/11, it no longer becomes a question of liking the “political platform” of one party over the other. The question in the minds of the public, is reduced to one, “Who will keep us safe?” President Bush has successfully sold his Administration as the one to do that.


Allan, B. Z. (Ed.). (2003). Journalism after September 11. New York: Routledge. Retrieved May 19, 2007, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=108349833 Baum, Matthew A. “Soft News and Foreign Policy: How Expanding the Audience Changes the Policies.” Japanese Journal of Political Science. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Foredi, Frank. “The Politics of Fear.” www.spiked-online.com. http://www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CA760.htm Gitlin, Todd. “Embed or in Bed? the War, the Media and the Truth.” The American Prospect, June 2003, 43+. http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001938686. Glassner, B. (1999). The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. New York: Basic Books. Retrieved May 19, 2007, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=30544946 Goodman, A., & Goodman, D. (2004). The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing America’s War Profiteers, the Media That Love Them and the Crackdown on Our Rights. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin. Retrieved May 21, 2007, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=109827502 Gordon, D. R. (1995, May 22). The Politics of Anti-Terrorism. The Nation, 260, 726. Retrieved May 19, 2007, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002227469 Lacy, Mark J. “War, Cinema and Moral Anxiety.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political 28, no. 5 (2003): 611+. http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002573259. Norris, Carol. “The Politics of Fear.” (2004). www.counterpunch.org. http://www.counterpunch.org/norris1012.html Oliverio, A. (1997). The State of Injustice: The Politics of Terrorism and the Production of Order. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 38(1-2), 48+. Retrieved May 19, 2007, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000485422 (1988). Violence and Terror in the Mass Media: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Greenwood Press. Retrieved May 19, 2007, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=71157963 Vandhei, Jim, & Howard Kurtz. (2004) The Politics of Fear. The Washington Post. September 29, 2004; Page A01.

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