Wednesday, December 16, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth
From near the bottom in July, fear of terrorism
has leaped up in the Gallup poll.

Having spent a lifetime in journalism I am well aware of the public’s desire to Kill the Messenger. But I am also aware of the media tendency to way overplay the storylines with endless interruptions, manufactured tie-ins and redundant segments, thus concocting a drumbeat of interminable bad news that translates into Social Calamity Speeding Toward You. No wonder so many wish the messenger would, figuratively, go jump in the lake.

Many Americans are going through that feeling right now.  Combine ISIS, robust time to candidates expressing fear of terrorists as they pursue their subset of a subset of presidential voters (yet we all have to endure it) and endless segments on the horrors of San Bernardino. Bam! A new national disaster. The public is enduring this latest gussied-up float in the media parade that is marching through all networks, multiple cable channels and newsy websites.

In pursuit of eyeballs and ratings, this bloviating seems designed to turn citizens more fearful and hawkish at the same time -- quite a combination.  Yet as the investigation unfolds the talking heads are forced to take back speculations that first filled airtime and panicked the nation.

The spate of repetitive reporting includes a dozen non-news news flashes and flat guesswork around how ISIS is infecting citizens around the world through social media (though it seems in actual count to be a few hundred, maybe, rather than the whole world).  But even a few hundred – heck one or two – can do a lot of damage if they’ve lost all restraint and are willing to kill themselves for a cause.

No government expertise can fully eliminate the destructive power of those who live double lives without being part of an organized movement.

The candidates who want to run government don’t confess to this, however obvious.  Maybe they think  we should  have learned such limitations  over centuries (WWI started with one assassin triggering multiple coalitions; anarchists intimidated democratic societies as much as ISIS does today; McCarthyism sent swatches of the nation trembling to the bathroom or nuclear shelter;  9/11 not only led to a war against a county that had nothing to do with the Twin Towers devastation but also led patriotic Americans to kill Sikhs at service stations -- and I could go on and on how we have been driven over the edge by whomever is determined today’s Frankenstein monster).

Usually fear peters out and sanity is restored through sturdy commitment and great police work, not candidates pontificating on patriotism.
This month it seems that a zombie terror has come to our country – if you listen to the media, which is clearly listening to each other.  Everyone discusses how ISIS or Isil or Daesh led to the San Bernardino killings by an American born Muslim and his foreign born head-wrapped wife – and that is false. It turns out,  in a fact largely ignored by the terrified public,  that the pair were discussing jihad in private messages (not social media) before ISIS was even created.  Something stirred -- WHAT? Abnormal hatred, desire for secrecy or for revenge against whatever.

That inability to know or blame ought to lead the thoughtful to ponder what is happening, block by block, family by family -- and also what is valued and criticized within communities. Apparently a few people can  appear normal while they are actually stripped by fanatical beliefs or mental state of those natural instincts toward humanity.  Whether caused by sophisticated terrorist propaganda, private demons, an unknown insult  or person by person encounters within a culture . . . we can’t yet say.

That is actually the unanswerable part of the San Bernardino story. Don’t be sidetracked by the search for a bogeyman. The early evidence as the investigation unfolds is that a couple could do all this without their friends or family knowing or suspecting -  even with a grandmother in  the house – and worse could  leave behind a six month old as they ran toward suicide by police, as their final shootout can accurately be described. There is no religion that teaches this much less commands it. There is no government that can make this disappear.

But now people obsessed with media reporting believe the world around them, particularly the Islamic world, is abnormal. All predicated on one disturbed couple with easy access to assault weapons.  From many quarters we are being told in one way or another that the only solution is to distrust everyone, lock them out of our doors and country, buy more guns and prepare for 1.5 billion “Walking Dead.”

Big surprise! In this outsized media atmosphere, fear of terrorist attacks and of ISIS has now taken over the No. 1 spot in the polls of the American public, where once it lagged far behind. The same media that blisters the air with those talking points is also reporting the results of the polls they helped create. All reinforce what they kept saying; making us think the entire nation feels under the same threat. 

And guess who is leading the barrage of “Do Something! Do Anything!” – the Republican candidates for president. Did anyone really listen to their Dec. 15 debate and those insane generalities about better algorithms, sterner faces and “we need toughness” as solutions? Could anyone follow the generalized didactics about regime change vs. tolerating an unsavory leader?  Whatever happened to case by case judgment?

Trust in the government on terrorism has plunged in media blitz.
If you think the candidates were sometimes silly and patronizing to the voters, meet the Congress.  All parties not in the White House seem rife with nasty demands to kill the bastards (if not the messengers).  They assign blame not to the terrorists’ own misguided extremism but to a “weak” administration – that same administration that, on the other unnoticed hand, has used more drones and targeted homicides of identified enemies on and off the battlefield.  The same administration that is actually slowly rolling back the territory ISIS rules.

Those polls, which change wind at will making the American public seem ridiculously fickle, report disapproval of President Obama’s ISIS policy. But what they are really saying is that citizens want their fear of lone wolf terrorists and organized terrorism thrown out of town by sundown. So according to the polls, the nation disagrees with his efforts 60% (at least this week) and the White House endures constant criticism that he is not excitable enough or fury-filled enough and too reluctant to embrace war as a solution, with the implication spoken by some that he must be a “durn furriner” -- or even an alien.

Talk about tunnel vision! The GOP squabblers are so confused they don’t know how often they are agreeing with Obama’s policies while condemning them. One AP fact checker was dumbstruck by the “number of candidates criticizing Obama’s course against ISIS while proposing largely the same steps that are already underway.”

The GOP candidates flailed around, not understanding, as one writer put it, that “they are offering simple-minded solutions to the complexities of a dangerous world.”  Nor do they have a clue about the labyrinthine problems of the Internet

I’m putting my vote behind common sense. Americans are worried certainly, but they are not succumbing to cowering -- similar to what happened in France after the ISIS massacre. At first it appeared that the radical right wing’s Muslim and refugee hating party of Marie Le Pen was on the verge of powerful election victory, so unhinged and helpless had the French felt in the first days after the attack. But in the conclusive second round of regional voting a few weeks later, her party fell far back.

There is a mix of both reasonable and unreasonable fear in the US, but why is the reasonable fear being blown out of proportion? The unreasonable fear is spurring the sense of America as a coward country unless citizens put soldiers or mercenaries on the battlefield to defeat an enemy -- without understanding how the enemy may be feeding on our foreign presence.

Has anyone caught the other irony?  This is the same nation and media that praise or reluctantly credit Edward Snowden for breaking the law but revealing secrets we needed to know of how much the government is peeking into our digital lives. Yet the same people are roundly criticizing the same government for not peeking, for not finding out years ago that radicalization was one of the sweet nothings being whispered between Sayed Farook and his eventual bride Tashfeen Malik.  Only now, confounding the media reports, it turns out none of that occurred on social media but in private message.

In the US the talking heads are saying, “Well, we’re just giving the public what they want – the polls prove it.”  Really?  I’m waiting out a few weeks when I think the public will come to its senses – and I wish more of the media would do the same and report with caution. Because left behind are things more difficult to report that used to top the polls and are still in need of determined solutions – such trivialities as job creation, guns and health care.

All now take the back seat as America spins on this ISIS flavored media roulette wheel.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for 

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