VII. How the Media Coverage of September 11th Affected Racial Profiling

The attacks on the World Trade Center were aired live on network television. One to two months after the September 11th attacks, eleven percent of New Yorkers reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which was almost three times the national average. A study found that the occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder was highest in those that watched the most television and was even higher than for those who lost a family member, friend, or co-worker. The coverage profoundly affected all Americans. One must ask “why” ? Was it because broadcasters repeatedly replayed the image of the planes hitting the towers and the towers collapsing? Was it because most broadcast and cable companies dropped advertising and entertainment programs and substituted non-stop news coverage of the terrorist attacks? It was because the coverage was live, unpackaged and unfiltered. The major networks--ABC, CBS, and NBC--were without commercial interruption for almost ninety hours. The September 11th television coverage surpassed the coverage of the Kennedy Assassination by about twenty hours. In addition, many of the specialized cable networks like MTV, VH1, TNN, FX, Fox, and ESPN also aired news feed from their network affiliates.

The effect of the attacks and the news coverage was profound. Many citizens of the United States and the world, not solely the people directly affected by the attacks, felt the fear and panic. Americans were fearful of attack from any direction. There were an unprecedented number of false bomb threats to government buildings and landmarks. Many facilities were repeatedly evacuated right after the September 11th attack. Americans may always have had these false bomb threats, but now they were televised live. Moreover, the government was taking each one very seriously. In addition, several people were killed and many others injured by the still unsolved anthrax attacks that followed the airplane attacks.

Images from New York, the posters of missing persons and makeshift memorials, saddened the American people. Family members appeared on television hoping that their loved ones would be found alive. The death toll was announced many times daily. And countless people experienced it all through television as if they were there. The events of September 11th demonstrate the power of the television and related medium.

In FCC v. Pacifica, the Supreme Court noted that radio and television broadcasting were different than other media because of their omnipresence and their intrusive quality. The Court observed that, without warning, the broadcast audience might be trapped into seeing or hearing an unwanted message before the audience member realizes what she is seeing or hearing. The broadcast coverage of September 11th was the ultimate illustration of the rationale of Pacifica.

When the United States first proceeded against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in an effort to find and capture bin Laden, the government restricted the American media from the war zone. The news media had to rely exclusively on film footage from Al Jazeera, which is an independent, twenty-four hour, Arab satellite television station. Many newscasters apologized to viewers for pictures and interviews that might appear to be slanted against the United States. In addition, Al Jazeera broadcast taped interviews of bin Laden. For instance, bin Laden appeared on Al Jazeera denouncing the United States' military campaign in Afghanistan as “unjust” and “ferocious.”

Bin Laden's use of the media was novel. It was the first time that an American adversary had such personal and intimate access to American television screens. He specifically articulated his side of the story. The leaders of our foreign adversaries in past conflicts were largely unseen on American television. Bin Laden, however, the man allegedly responsible for killing over three thousand Americans, was on television speaking directly to an American audience. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asked that the major television networks refrain from broadcasting tapes of bin Laden, because the Bush administration was concerned that he might be sending encoded messages to sleeper agents around the world.

The power of Al Jazeera highlights the global impact of broadcast television. Political leaders now realize that foreign news broadcasts shape opinions across international boundaries. To deal with this new global reality, the Bush administration first attempted to force the Government of Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera, to control its content. Secretary of State Colin Powell met with the Emir of Qatar and to express concern about the “inflammatory rhetoric” used on Al Jazeera. When this tactic failed, the Bush administration had several senior officials--Powell, National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld-- appear as guests on Al Jazeera talk shows. In addition, the Bush administration arranged for Christopher Ross, former ambassador to Syria and fluent in Arabic, to appear on Al Jazeera. Ambassador Ross had two hours of live airtime to respond to bin Laden, and told the audience that “[t]he terrorists are falsifying facts and history.” The White House invited Al Jazeera to cover an event at the White House where the Red Cross praised American children for raising money for to aid children in Afghanistan. The Bush administration also created an office to better disseminate positive information about the United States to the Arab world.

The attacks of September 11th demonstrate the importance and influence of the media. One result of post-September 11th media is that people of color are now vulnerable to being profiled in a broader scope. Now a black man may no longer be just the “savage Black Brute;” he may be a possible Middle Eastern Terrorist. Media frequently broadcast negative stereotypes of African Americans and other minorities. These stereotypical images lead the majorities of the American public to have negative views of African Americans and other minorities.

The Report of President Clinton's Initiative on Race indicated that 52.8% of the population associated violence with African Americans, 42.8% found violence as an attribute of Latinos, 21.3% found violence an attribute of Asian Americans, whereas only 18.8% of the population associated whites with violence. A study by the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania showed that even though black-on-white and brown-on-white crime constitutes a very small proportion of crimes committed, Philadelphia broadcasters were most likely to report and highlight black-on-white crimes. Another study reported that even though crime rates declined drastically in the 1990s, the national broadcasters' coverage of crime increased 721%.

Other studies show that African American suspects are more likely than whites to have their photographs broadcast on the news and are more likely to be shown as suspects, i.e., handcuffed, escorted by police, or with a “mug shot” displayed. Whites are usually not shown in police restraints, and either no photograph is shown or a photography-studio-quality photograph is shown, like a high school yearbook photograph. Distorted images like these convey the message that African Americans and Latinos are to be feared. Since September 11th, it may seem as though the media have conveyed the message that all people from the Middle East are terrorists and that almost all people of color should be feared.