The War on Perception: Exploiting U.S. Media and Governance Practices

On is an expanding series of news graphics on the war on terrorism. One of these graphics (dated November 1, 2001) lists CDC confirmed anthrax cases for the month of October. Framed by pictures of five victims, the table lists the victim, the victim's age, the kind of anthrax contracted (skin or inhaled), the location of the infection, the date of the confirmed diagnosis, and the health status (outcome) for each person. The aggregate total of victimization attributed to anthrax infection across the U.S. was small: In a nation of 280 million, there were seventeen confirmed cases and five deaths.

The financial scope of governmental, corporate and individual responses to these confirmed cases (and to the presence of anthrax spores in government offices in Washington, New York and New Jersey) is stupefying. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson will sign a two billion dollar contract for enough smallpox vaccine for the entire U.S. populace, quadrupling the dollar amount already committed for purchasing hundreds of millions of Cipro capsules. Even as its revenues precipitously drop, the U.S. Postal Service will spend more than two billion for electron beam technology to routinely irradiate mail. Anticipating a bioterrorist assault, state and local governments are spending substantial and unbudgeted monies to shore up public health, hazmat and criminal justice staff and equipment. Meanwhile, a brisk black market in antibiotics has emerged, while sales of latex gloves and gas masks have soared. Laboratory testing facilities are booming even while the future commercial viability of such mundane products as powdered sugar and non-dairy coffee creamer are in genuine doubt. In the grip of an endemic national anxiety, priorities have changed. Work on (and funds for) once high-profile national and regional health and infrastructure items (such as stem-cell research or education) has slowed or stopped. Governmental, corporate and individual productivity has declined.

To date, the calculable risk from bioterrorism remains relatively small. Epidemiological data tells us that more 60,000 U.S. residents will die from pneumonia and flu in a given year, while more than 40,000 will perish in auto accidents. Nearly 30,000 will commit suicide. None of these events will change the tonality of a nation, its sensibility, and its vision of the future, not the way that post September 11th events already have. Because it would be difficult to create a mass contagion with anthrax, which is not contagious and is treatable with antibiotics, the primary goal of these anthrax attacks may be symbolic and perceptual. Regardless of whether a bioterrorist attack ever occurs, fears of possible bioterrorism have become a key event for reshaping the American psyche. In a war of tactics and maneuvers, terrorists have co-opted a predictable mix of U.S. media formats and institutional (governmental and corporatist) habits to wage a media-driven, virtualized war of attrition on the collective cultural sensibility of the U.S. How this war of perception is waged, and for what end, is discussed below:

Terrorizing Media and Governmental Elites

In a war already punctuated by symbolic and culturally aware gestures, the first five anthrax cases descended into the production facilities of the most ubiquitous national media outlets: American Media, Inc. (twice), NBC, ABC and CBS. The initial attack on the Florida offices of American Media, Inc (AMI) served two purposes. In an immediate and practical sense, the tabloid publishing behemoth has the largest circulation of print media in the U.S. Placing the first spores there guaranteed predictable, enduring, sensationalistic, fear-mongering coverage across the pages of the most popular supermarket rags. Symbolically, the very name of the conglomerate, American Media, Inc., can be seen as a synecdoche for the entirety of U.S. media products and formats. In a larger sense, the initial bioterror assault on American Media, Inc. plausibly represented a tactical strike on the global purveyors of American ideology and culture. It was an attack on the corporations that can be described, collectively, as American Media, Incorporated.

The point was driven home by the subsequent discovery of anthrax in the Manhattan news studios of NBC, ABC and CBS. The intended targets were clearly meant to export and disseminate the obsessive face of their own fears across the VHF spectrum. Already shaken by the events of September 11th, ghostly visages of anthrax panic took possession of the once authoritative and self-assured presentations of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and others of the media elite. As potential victims, major news networks created a highly charged and predictable profusion of self-referential panic stories. So began the emergence of 24/7 cable news channels, in mid-October as all anthrax, all panic, all the time. The concurrent discovery of spores in the densest concentrations of the media/government complex fed the shrill and obsessive/compulsive focus on the faces and voices of shaken governmental and media-elites, and on coping strategies, such as volume purchases of Cipro.

Ten of the next eleven confirmed anthrax cases occurred at mail centers in D.C. and New Jersey. Two middle-aged workers died from inhalation anthrax at the Brentwood mail facility in D.C. Arguably, these deaths were "collateral damage." The real target may also be primarily symbolic. The post office's oft-repeated vow to deliver the mail "through rain, snow, sleet, or hail, and the dead of night" represents the primacy of stable routines and predictable, mundane interaction. A quarantine/lockdown of the USPS would be equivalent to tearing at the fabric of the social contract (the guarantee of a secure, mundane order) between nation and state. Alternatively, recoding the delivery of mail as a dangerous and risk-laden event (requiring latex gloves and face masks) recodes the routine and mundane into an anxiety-driven event. This kind of recoding is an important move in intensifying the reality of an everyday society of fear. And our own representational formats and habits are the unwitting delivery system (as were Boeing 757s and 767s) for the terrorist war on perception.

Exploiting the Routine Motifs of Panic News

Knowledge of the public world is mostly mediated by broadcast news institutions that are in the business of making money and shaping political perception by routinizing the non-routine (major and minor forms of disaster and violence) into temporal/visual formats. Media accounts are assembled productions that never merely describe events or issues. News stories often are part of continuous processes that inscribe preferred meanings onto social reality by simultaneously prescribing (in accounts of events or behaviors that implicitly or explicitly shape emotions while presenting a limited range of imagined solutions) and proscribing (through cautionary moral tales about what actions should not be undertaken). And as David Altheide has noted, because these tales must fit the technical and commercial demands around production and ratings, narratives of woe conform to (and exemplify) formats. Such temporal/visual/verbal formats shape how an event is portrayed. Once a particular story has been framed by a format, it is a tactical and strategic challenge to represent an event outside of the pre-existing (and often highly charged) representational frame.

An oft-used media frame is fear. The endless production and circulation of simulacra of fear shape how Americans understand and respond to others. As Barry Glassner points out in The Culture of Fear, Americans fear the "wrong things: crime, drugs, minorities, teen moms, killer kids, mutant microbes, plane crashes, road rage, and so much more." And because Americans respond to highly emotive and repetitive news simulacra as if they are "the real world," U.S. residents make very predictable and serious mistakes in collective political judgment. Noting the pattern in 1999, just before the Columbine incident, Glassner documents a history of "panic driven public spending" as a palliative for the anxieties created by the simulacra of random violence and victimization. As Charles F. Angell noted, the political response to Columbine left pressing infrastructural and pedagogical needs of most schools unmet, even as expensive surveillance equipment drained the budgets of fiscally-pressed school districts, even as aggregate crime reports showed that across the U.S., school-related violence had steadily declined throughout the 1990s.

Stimulating this kind of resource-misallocation pattern may well be another target and outcome of the terrorist war on perception. The media and governmental elite's obsession with its own fear and security, expressed within the predictable and pre-existent media format frame of fear, has shaped fiscal spending priorities. The result has been that worthwhile investments in a variety of areas (from medical research to education) will be scaled back, as Americans exhaust resources on expensive placebos for the fear of the moment. The result may well be that America will become weaker and poorer. Initiating such a process may be as nefarious a use of technology as hijacking commercial aircraft for mass murder. It's just that neither the U.S. government, nor the media, nor the general populace has recognized it as such.

In the end, then, the terrorist war on perception may consist of these components: First, a symbolic war on purveyors of U.S. ideology and culture, replacing the smugness of corporatist distance with the immediacy of personal fear. Secondly, there is an obvious recoding of mundane expectations and relationships (symbolized by the reliability and predictability of the U.S. Mail) as an erosion of the social contract, and as a reduction of trust in the safety of routine interactions. Thirdly, by co-opting the media's format frame of fear, compulsive narratives of fear have stimulated a reallocation of fiscal priorities. The shuffling of priorities may well make America poorer and weaker. If so, Rumsfeld is right: It is a new kind of war. It is a terroristic war on everyday perception, a battleground where America's media formats and representational habits have become a weapon used against her.

Dion Dennis is Visiting Assistant Professor, Dept of Psychology/Sociology, Texas A&M University - Kingsville, System Center Palo Alto (San Antonio)