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Tales of Terror: Television News and the Construction of the Terrorist Threat.

Bethami A. Dobkin. (New York. Praeger Publishers, 1992) 144pp.

In the months since the bombing of the World Trade Center, U.S. news coverage of terrorism has undergone a dramatic change. No longer do the media focus on terrorist states -- mostly in the Middle East -- that support groups of killers whose aim is to wreak havoc on the West. Now, according to the media, the threat is coming from a loose-knit grouping of Islamic fundamentalists, whose goals are more obscure and whose methods are less predictable. In several areas though, the change has not been so great the terrorists still oppose the United States, and the U.S. government still feels the need to fight these groups. And the media still play the role, willingly or not, that they have in the past: building public support for action.

In Tales of Terror: Television News and the Construction of the Terrorist Threat, Bethami A. Dobkin examines the roots of the media's role in creating the fearsome -- though mostly fictional -- image of the terrorist that ultimately fueled public support for the Reagan administration's 1986 bombing of Libya. While the book contains seeds of truth, much of Dobkin's argument is obscured by dense language, heavy use of jargon and a lack of knowledge of the daily workings of the media and government. The author also displays a simplistic cynicism concerning the influence of advertisers on news production.

Dobkin studies the construction of the terrorist threat by examining the coverage on ABC News of nine terrorist incidents that occurred in the five years between Reagan's inauguration in 1981 and the attack on Libya. These events were preceded by two key terrorist incidents in the 1970% the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and "Skyjack Sunday," in which Palestinians hijacked three airliners on one day in 1970. According to Dobkin these attacks "introduced U.S. audiences to terrorism via television" and set the stage for television coverage of terrorism in the Reagan years. The incidents that Dobkin addresses range from the hijacking of a Pakistani airliner to the Achille Lauro incident, in which Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American passenger, was murdered.

Because news coverage rarely differs from network to network, Dobkin's focus on ABC seems a valid way to analyze television's coverage of terrorism. Furthermore, ABC has a special relationship with terrorism since "Nightline" grew out of the network's coverage of the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran. One cannot, however, extend all of Dobkin's conclusions to other media, which cover news differently from the networks.

Dobkin refutes the criticism by some observers that television news coverage has built support for terrorists. Indeed, her main point is that the ABC News coverage of the attacks hardened public opinion against the terrorists and their causes. She contends that this response was precisely what the Reagan administration wanted and that it provided the support needed to justify the harsh U.S. policy against terrorists and the states suspected of supporting them.

The book focuses on the nine incidents to show how the television coverage helped build public support for U.S. policy in each case. The author argues that Reagan's obsession with terrorism dated back to his first day as president, when he declared in his inaugural speech that counterterrorism would be a key element of his foreign policy. Dobkin also sees this turning point as the media's attraction to the issue; however, she fails to look at the larger political context in which the speech took place.

As Reagan spoke, American hostages were being flown out of Iran, ending an ordeal that had crippled the Carter presidency. Reagan was not going to let the same thing happen to his administration. The president's obsession with terrorism ultimately led to the failed attempt at bargaining with Iran, which decided the fate of the U.S. hostages in Beirut, and ultimately to the Iran-Contra affair. Given the administration's preoccupation with the issue, it is not surprising that ABC News and the rest of the media were also obsessed with terrorism during the time.

Despite the weaknesses in her arguments, Dobkin does point out several flaws that, although well-known, remain pervasive in the media. While much of her criticism applies to television, which some view as more emotional, jingoistic and simplistic than print, many of her points can be applied even to the nation's best newspapers. First, her examination of the media's sources of information is enlightening: "The sources presented by news organizations ... come to define the terms by which terrorism is discussed." Those sources are mostly administration officials, former officials and experts who rarely deviate from the official line.

Dobkin makes another good point that applies specifically to television: Its tends to present a news story as a melodrama, with tension building in each update report -- each episode -- to a dramatic conclusion. Unfortunately, reality can not be manipulated as if it were fiction so television must make an effort to keep the plot moving. The Reagan administration knew this and provided the speculative details necessary to keep the networks satisfied. Consequently, both the administration and ABC worked to keep the terrorist threat alive. For example, when the State Department changed the accounting procedures used for calculating the number of terrorist incidents -- creating a dramatic increase in attacks -- ABC went right along.

In another example cited by Dobkin, ABC anchor Peter Jennings produced statistics that seem to have come out of thin air:

In an almost daily barrage of reports on terrorism, you certainly

get a sense of how significant a problem this has become. Some

information from our Fact File: Two years ago, there were approximately

10 incidents of terrorism, by U.S. definition, every week.

Today, there are 10 every day. These facts were not borne out by a State Department representative, who had said several weeks before on ABC News that the number of terrorist attacks was actually increasing at a slower rate than in the past.

Dobkin also rightfully criticizes the subtle editorializing that occurs on television. In July 1985, jennings said: "A warning today from Islamic Holy War, whatever it is." Comments like this, along with generalizations about Arabs and Muslims, are at best editorializing, and at worst, racist.

While these points all are valid, none are new. The magazines Columbia journalism Review and Washington Journalism Review, as well as innumerable books and articles that critique the media, have all made these points. Furthermore, these books and articles are more accessible than is Dobkin's work. Dobkin, director of media studies and assistant professor of communications studies at the University of San Diego, repeatedly lapses into the academic jargon. She writes that she is trying to "'help to alleviate the suffering of all victims of political violence, at home and abroad," implying that she wishes to reach a large audience. Yet she writes sentences that border on the impenetrable: "Like nominalization, passivation in the ABC newscasts relied on the dualities present in ideographs." Although such terms are defined elsewhere in the book, few casual readers are likely to wade through them.

Furthermore, Dobkin seems to have little insight into the ways in which journalists work. At one point she analyzes the reasons for ABC's continued use of the same photograph of Brigadier General James Dozier, a senior U.S. military officer attached to NATO, who was kidnapped by the Red Brigade in Italy. She views the repeated use of this portrait as an attempt to keep "the drama distant with the focus on Dozier as a cool, professional, military official." It is more likely that the photo was the official one given to ABC by the Pentagon, and it may have been the only good picture available to ABC.

Dobkin also implies that there was some conspiracy in not showing bodies during the rescue and cleanup operation following the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. She states that the images were "predictable, given the challenge to U.S. foreign policy posed by the bombing." ABC's reasoning was probably less subtle: Americans get upset at seeing dead Americans, particularly soldiers, and ABC probably did not want to lose its audience.

Finally, Dobkin makes two subtle references to the influence of advertisers on news production, both of which are completely unsubstantiated and serve to detract from the study. First she writes: "News stories are organized according to standard production formulas; television audiences need not only to be informed but also seduced, entertained, and in the proper state of mind for advertisers." The second remark comes in the conclusion: "Ideological critiques point to the networks' reliance on institutional sources and the media's general adherence to the government's point of view (as long as it is compatible with advertisers)."

The first comment begs the questions What is the proper state of mind for advertisers, and how could that be achieved? The second is harder to decipher, but it seems to imply that the networks would never produce a story that would upset advertisers. Television news may be bland, but few would claim that advertisers have direct control over news content.

Dobkin makes several valid and important points, and her main argument -- that television coverage helps build support for government repression of terrorists -- is probably true. This conclusion is not new. Much of the media hand-wringing after the 1991 Persian Gulf War was concerned with this very fact: Were the media manipulated into building support against Iraq, thus making the war possible?

Given the book's $4295 list price, it works out to about 38 cents per page for the 114 pages of text. Two magazine subscriptions and a couple of books on the media will leave readers far more informed for their dollars than will Tales of Terror.
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Article Details
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Author:Brown, Ken
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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