So why does the media fall for bogus or misleading terror stories, Charlie-Brown-football-like, time after time? One answer is clearly: It works. The aftermath of 9/11 was the high water mark for cable news in terms of ratings, and it’s hard to let go of that. A newspaper like the New York Daily News, which broke the vague “financial district plot” last week, was surely glad to “scoop” the New York Times on the terror beat. What’s more, there is the acceptance of the notion that combating terrorism is indeed “a war,” which merits amped up “war coverage.”
But news outlets have another. more important role: To be responsible. Terror fears have warped the American political debate, from clearing the way for an unjust war in Iraq to papering over White House scandals. That type of influence is something that goes well beyond ratings. CNN would also get lots more viewers if Carol Costello or Anderson Cooper read the news in the buff, but that wouldn’t be very appropriate. Scaring the American public needlessly, we’d argue, is a much greater sin.