Wednesday, June 21, 2006

TERROR PLOT INFOTAINMENT: Some more notes from the field

Pulitzer-winner Ron Suskind made the rounds of cable news yesterday with his tales from the war on terror. First up was Wolf Blitzer's "Situation Report" on CNN and it delivered standard good practices in major media terror plot infotainment. In terror plot infotainment, the teller of tales gets to read from his book, or the host reads from the book, and the producers throw the page of interest on the tube for the sake of pleasing tales. No one asks substantive questions like "Why should we believe your fantastic claims?" or "What do you mean when it is said the Mubtakkar of Death can be built at the Home Depot? Can you just buy Fisher Scientific cyanide salts at the hardware store?" (The answer: NO.)

Instead, hosts -- like Blitzer, ask leading soft pitch questions like, "Tell us about . . . " or some variation thereon. The toughest questions asked, if tough is the right word, were basically, "Abu Zubaydah -- crazy or not?" and "Did we torture a crazy man?"

On Hannity and Colmes, Suskind had less time. But the message was similar: Here's the real stuff from the war on terror. The terrorists had worked for "twenty years" to perfect the Mubtakkar of Death. No simple question like, "If they worked two decades to perfect it, why haven't we seen it?" Dick Destiny blog is sure there's an answer, one like this: Al Qaeda is entreprenurial and Zawahiri said no.

If you watched terror plot infotainment, you got to see how much fun it was. It's all smiles when talking about the Mubtakkar of Death or other plots and revelations. No one has a bad time or frowns when talking about the really bad things said to be averted. It's jolly good sport.

On Tuesday, I was asked to be part of a segment on this issue for National Public Radio's On the Media. So I trotted down to Pasadena City College's public radio affiliate, KPCC-FM. It's a pleasant place to go on a sunny day and I know the studio because I'd been there in the past to talk about various things for GlobalSecurity.Org.

This time it was a non-starter. As a radio show on the media, the arc of interest and story-telling was deemed insufficient. For better or worse, about fifteen minutes in I realized that the host and I were talking past each other. Asking where the Mubtakkar of Death actually was, if it was anywhere, was not radio friendly. The CIA made it. Let's move on.

Why should we doubt what our government experts tell us? Well, it's possible to explain why and this blog, over the past two weeks, with regards to chemical and biological "plans" from al Qaeda, has said why. But in this context of a show in which the media examines itself, this time -- it wasn't something that could be easily said.

Opinion was the conversation had become splintered and unsuitable for a linear radio show. And that seemed to be an honest assessment.

The subject is, after all, complicated. You have to get into the history of chemical and biological terror reporting by the media as contrasted to what is actually known from solid evidence on capabilities, not from reports in which an authority says so, to know why it is reasonable to look askance at TIME/Suskind's story of the al Qaeda cyanide-gas machine.

It also asks that a logical requirement be that fantastic claims require more rigorous standards than a hyperbolic narrative by a Pulitzer-winning reporter pushing a book and reliance on government sources of unknown (and possibly little) expertise and veracity.

It's legitimate to regard a claim about a device being the equivalent of "splitting the atom" as risible. One expert on the subject, a colleague of Dick Destiny blog, remarked in e-mail that Suskind's Mubtakkar wasn't even the equivalent of Rutherford's diagram of the atom. It's a funny putdown if you know a little science history. And since Suskind invoked particle physics in his pleasing story of the Mubtakkar of Death, we feel free to use the father of particle physics in a humorous slag of it.

The media does have an institutional aversion to outside criticism after the sensational chemical or biological terror story has been widely reported. Sometimes the allergy is as obvious as a simple "Get away!" Sometimes it just seems to happen by accident or by reflex.

Last year, when Milton Leitenberg and I were critiquing the scare over botulism in the milk the media came calling. Often they expressed interest, but then they didn't actually want to hear what either of us had to say. A funny example of this occured when a big evening news program sent its satellite truck out to interview Leitenberg. Video was taped and when it came time for the segment to air -- it was replaced by a lifestyle bit on rumba dancing and never seen again. The story about botox in the milk and thousands dead from drinking it was a pleasing one. But the story that the same thing was 99 percent nonsense was less pleasing than an entertainment segment.

Not enough terror plot infotainment to it or "I just really liked that story on rumba dancing more"? Who can say?

Some interesting history and technical detail: In e-mail, arms control research scholar Milton Leitenberg informs that with regards to cyanide munitions made by combatants in World War II, it was difficult to get ambient field concentration high enough to do damage. As a consequence, "In the 1933 to 1945 period, the US and Japan decided that the only way to get battlefield concentrations of hydrogen cyanide over the Ld50 level [the dose required to kill half the members of the target population] was to use very large quantities. So the Japanese picked 300 lb. bombs and the US picked 500 and then 1000 lb. ones."

Draw your conclusions.

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