Opinion

Jack Shafer

This month’s ultimate enemy — the Islamic State

Jack Shafer
Aug 26, 2014 00:42 UTC

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At an Aug. 21 Pentagon press conference, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel claimed that the Islamic State “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.”

Perhaps sensing that his comparison hadn’t reached sufficiently hyperbolic velocity to escape earth orbit, Hagel immediately amended himself.

“Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything,” he said [emphasis added], thereby vaulting the brutal Islamic State over the Iranians, the North Koreans, the Russians, the Chinese, and all other entrants into the Number 1 slot in our ever-churning power-ranking of international enemies.

Hagel wasn’t so much fear-mongering as he was fear-tending. War is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne observed a century ago. When at war—or about to go to war—the state craves greater acquiescence from its citizens and greater powers, and granted that acquiescence and those new powers it grows ever larger. Every now and again a foe like the USSR appears, one with 12,000 nuclear warheads ready for delivery, which makes the job of fear-tending simple. At other times, as was the case last week at the Pentagon, it takes a supreme act of rhetoric to instill exploitable fear in the public. The textbook example of this came several months after the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address amalgamated Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and North Korea, and “their terrorist allies” into a unified “axis of evil.”

When Hagel poured his “beyond and everything” summation last week, he did so into an emotional cauldron. Less than two days before, the Islamic State had released its execution video of journalist James Foley, terrorizing the people who wouldn’t watch it and mortifying those who did. In that environment, the secretary of defense could have said U.S. intelligence had determined that the Islamic State was kidnapping orphans and loading them on a streetcar-to-hell it had built in its spare time, and the American public would have believed him. I might have believed him!

Why journalists are like cops and firefighters

Jack Shafer
Sep 13, 2013 21:45 UTC

When some of our friends in academia read the top news about Syria on a website or in a newspaper, they do so through a lens ground by UCLA political scientist John Zaller. In a 2003 paper (pdf), Zaller analyzed two modes of news production that journalists often employ. While working in patrol mode, the press surveys the landscape for trouble and writes up what it finds, like a cop walking a beat and writing the occasional ticket or making the routine arrest. In alarm mode, aroused reporters respond to calls for help by lighting up the gumball, tossing it on the roof, and peeling out for the crime scene, the building afire, or the battleground.

I simplify Zaller here, just as he modified the patrol/alarm idea of two other political scientists on his way to his insight. But the simplification stands: The journalistic transmission knows two basic gears: slow or fast; monitoring from afar or fully entrenched; casual or obsessed. The press has long treated Syria as just another stop on its Middle East patrol, even though it has regarded massacres as legitimate tools of governance for decades, as this BBC timeline indicates. The migration of the two-year-old Syrian civil war from the back pages to the front, where it now amasses acres of newspaper coverage, can be attributed in equal part to the chemical attacks of late August in the western suburbs of Damascus and the puncturing of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. There’s nothing like chemical weapons dumped on innocents followed by a U.S. president’s threat to drop bombs to change the location of the loudest alarm.

I’m not disparaging anything that’s alarmed-based, just acknowledging that it best describes contemporary news coverage, a sentiment shared by many of the scholars cited in a new book by University of California, Davis, political scientist Amber E. Boydstun, Making the News: Politics, The Media, and Agenda Setting. Boydstun argues that in practice, the press follows neither the alarm model nor the patrol model, but oscillates between the two. “[N]ews outlets tend to only patrol those neighborhoods covered by beats or triggered by alarms,” she writes. Woodward and Bernstein responded to a minor alarm story, went into patrol mode, and as other news organizations followed, the patrol coverage escalated to alarm mode again and again.

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