The Digital Journalist
The Fear Factor
March 2007

by Peter Howe

I'm sure that the members of the present administration under the leadership of one of the most incurious presidents in history don't know this, but by one definition from a respectable institution they are full-blown terrorists. According to the Oxford American Dictionary the word terrorist was "originally applied to supporters of the Jacobins in the French Revolution, who advocated repression and violence in pursuit of the principles of democracy and equality." Now while I haven't heard Dick Cheney promoting the idea of equality recently, particularly in the awarding of government contracts, every other action that this misguided and incompetent crew has taken has been allegedly to spread the gospel of democracy throughout those foreign places somewhere on the other side of the pond that don't yet have it. Further evidence to support the supposition that they deserve the title comes from the fact that the derivation of the word is from the Latin 'terrere': to frighten. If there's one thing the Bushies know how to do, and it may be the only thing, it's the ability to scare the living daylights out of your average citizen. Whether it's the color-coded terror alerts that never go below "elevated," dubious intelligence about the lethality of our enemies, even about who those enemies are, this government will go to any lengths to make sure that in fact we are the victims of terrorism through our own fears.

Unfortunately for our domestic democracy there has been a coalition of the willing helping them in the form of a rubber stamp Congress, and more distressingly, because less understandably, a compliant media. Both of these institutions whose main purpose is to protect our interests, have not only been negligent in that duty, but have embraced scaremongering as a reelection technique for the former and a marketing tool for the latter. If there were drama alerts for newscasts they would never go below orange for high, and would more often be in red for severe. Every time I watch Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Room" I feel that I've tuned into a rerun of Dr. Strangelove. For all its militaristic/CIA-inspired set design it is, after all, merely a news show during which the most dramatic moments are often the promo for Lou Dobbs once again championing the embattled middle class. I must say that as a member of that group I wish we had an advocate who was a lot less irritating. And it's not just the national media either. How often have you heard your local TV station predict that the storm of the century is hurtling towards you only to find out later that it missed completely or was no more annoying than Lou Dobbs? We even have traffic alerts with jam cams and live video coverage from hovering helicopters that attempt to turn a simple fender bender into Apocalypse Now.

It's not as if the times weren't scary anyway, although many of their truly frightening aspects have been the work of the latter-day Jacobins as they whittle away at hard-won civil liberties, disregard the Constitution and eliminate the ancient rule of habeas corpus for those they deem dangerous, while condoning their kidnap and torture. But in some ways the most pervasive and pernicious effect of the climate of fear is the way that it has stifled debate, the lifeblood of democracy. Voltaire's dictum, "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death you right to say it," no longer seems to apply to this society. Question the wisdom of troop escalation and your patriotism will in turn be questioned; suggest a troop withdrawal and you will be accused of giving aid and comfort to the enemy; those who aren't with us are against us.

It is especially in times like this that the free exchange of ideas is vital, and the people who should be at the forefront of airing them are journalists and their editors. When historians look back on this period I have no doubt that they will judge the media to have been woefully lacking in the courage to challenge the actions, the morality and the legality of the administration. With the exception of a few columnists too few questions have been asked, too few dots connected, and too little outrage expressed.

If the results of the recent midterm elections showed us anything it was that the American public is fed up with the way that business is being conducted in this country. They've had it with divisive politics, governmental incompetence, corrupt corporate leadership, but most of all of being lied to and misled. If the rapid decline in readership of newspapers and viewership of broadcast news is an indication, this includes the media as well. They also have shown a strong inclination for people to own up to their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions. It is not coincidental that we're seeing mea culpas from people such as John Edwards and David Neeleman, and that her refusal to admit that she made a mistake when voting for the war in Iraq may be one of the biggest factors that loses Hillary Clinton the presidency.

The problem with using fear as a manipulative device is that it demands a continuous escalation. When people are used to living under yellow alerts they don't take notice of orange ones, and give scant heed to red. My home is in New York City where most drivers pay minimal attention to sirens from police cars, fire trucks or ambulances. This is not because they are more socially irresponsible than drivers in any other part of the country, but simply because they hear them all day long. They tune them out, because one's brain just can't tolerate that much drama day in and day out. Similarly if you hype a news story or weather forecast beyond its real level, when you do get a story that is actually important you have to herald it like the Second Coming. If there ever is a Second Coming, how our news media will handle that boggles the mind. The great thing about apologies is that they restore the balance. If the Newspaper Association of America or the anchors of the network news said to the American public, "You know, we did a really poor job of reporting the excesses of this administration, the failures of the Congress, and the dangers of lax corporate oversight. We didn't ask enough hard questions of enough people and we didn't draw conclusions from evidence that was all around us" then this would go a long way toward restoring the credibility of journalism as a profession. But don't worry, it's not likely to happen soon. That's something you don't have to fear.

© Peter Howe

Peter Howe is a former photojournalist, who subsequently became the Picture Editor of the New York Times Magazine, Director of Photography for LIFE magazine, Vice President of Corbis and President of a now defunct Internet venture, RightSpring. On three occasions he was awarded first place for magazine picture editing in the University of Missouri's Picture of the Year contest, and won four National Magazine Awards. A native of London England, Howe holds a BA in Fine Arts from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He has been a resident in the United States since 1979 and a citizen since 1992. Until last month, Peter was Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, but is now devoting his time to writing children's novels. He currently has two under contract for Harper-Collins.