In the movie Wag the Dog, a presidential adviser (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffmann) successfully divert the media's attention away from a presidential sex scandal by creating a make-believe war. William Randolph Hearst discovered at the beginning of the last century that sensational war stories boosted his newspaper's sales; it has since been evident that mainstream media thrives on war even more than presidential sex scandals.
The Bush Administration "wagged" the mainstream media recently — better than any Hollywood producer could. The front page of the the Sunday, May 19 edition of the San Antonio Express-News, for example, blared in huge type: "Al Qaida May Plot Another Sept. 11, But Intercepted Messages Too Cryptic For U.S. Officials to Decipher"
Deep in the story, the reader encountered a tell-tale sentence: "U.S. intelligence officials said they began in October to intercept communications among Al Qaida operatives discussing a second major attack and that they have detected recurring talk among them about another attack ever since."
If U.S. officials had this intelligence since October, why did they make it public only now?
The Bush Administration used its power to set the agenda of the mainstream media, and turned old news (Al Qaida threatens to attack the U.S.) into the Sunday's front page headlines.
A few days prior to the new warnings, Congress had finally begun to inquire into what exactly the Bush Administration knew about the likelihood of the 9-11 attacks and what they did (or did not do, in this case) to prevent them. After failing to investigate this critical issue for the past nine months, the media followed the lead of the Congressional inquiry and began to explore the issue themselves.
The Administration desperately needed to change the subject, and — with the help of a compliant media — they did. The big guns — Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Powell — all began making "news" out of old information and threats. Mainstream media (including the Express-News) subserviently put the new warnings on the front page without raising fundamental questions: Why are these officials making the warnings now? Is there any new evidence to substantiate the warnings? Could they be cynically manipulating the fears of the American public to silence criticism and nip inquiries of their past performance in the bud?
The last is a particularly important point. When the mainstream media placed such emphasis on the "vague warnings" from the Bush Administration, they unnecessarily startled an already traumatized American public. The editors should exercise caution when judging the news value of vague warnings — especially ones based on old information and persistent threats.
Like the proverbial "boy who cried wolf," repeated false alarms are a threat to the public safety. They exhaust the public's preparedness for a real threat. Accordingly, the Bush Administration acknowledged, three days after their sensational warnings, that, "despite concerns, the White House said it's not raising the nation-wide terror alert status, because intelligence on possible attacks is too vague." The warnings served only one purpose: Divert the media's attention away from the Bush Administration's incompetence and negligence before 9-11.
Curiously, the mainstream media, including the Express-News, did not pick up the trail of an obvious question raised by the U.S. officials claim that another attack was still "inevitable." Have nine months of war, which have killed thousands of civilians; the expansion of U.S. military presence throughout Central Asia, former Soviet Georgia, the Philippines, and Yemen; a massive increase in the US military budget; and the erosion of civil liberties at home failed to make us safer? Are U.S. officials subtly admitting an historic policy defeat?
With the marriage of mainstream media to war, an antiwar movement becomes an unwanted house guest who disrupts the "domestic tranquility." For this reason, editors found the Bush Administration's "wag the dog" warnings front page news, yet the April 20 mass mobilization of over 100,000 people in the streets of the nation's capital against the war was placed inside.
The Express-News has a Washington-based staff reporter. Did he cover the largest public manifestation of dissent to Bush's so-called "war on terrorism"? No: The short item covering the protests in the inside pages was from the wire sevices. Apparently, in the San Antonio Express-News, more than 100,000 dissenters are less newsworthy than one official voice — even when the official voice merely repeats stale, old news, while the dissenting chorus represents a new resistance to George W. Bush's increasingly Orwellian perpetual war.