John M. Phelan
Framing Terror



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Framing Terror

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Immediate Post 9/11 Counsel to Students

My dear students and fellow human beings:

Medical students study not only medicine and its various specialties; with their professors they criticize the state of the art and thus try to improve the profession when they join its ranks; the same with lawyers in a good law school.

If we study the media, it is not just because we would like to have a job someday in one of its many departments, from PR and product promotion to feature film production and elite editorial writing, but because we want to see it in all of its warts as well, in the hope that when a new generation takes over, they will not simply repeat the mistakes of the past.

The media are the principal vehicles of our mass culture in entertainment, sports, religion, and politics. Just as a professor of literature looks with a cold if appreciative eye at both the classics and new novels and plays in the hope of making students sensitive to their subtleties and critical of their excesses and sentimentalities, so we, who look at the news business and the opinon mongers, seek to separate the wheat from the chaff, and develope in our students a sense of discernment, of sophistication. This does not just mean seeing through rhetoric and sham but also holding up ideals of truth, justice, fairness, and competence against the actual practices of the media.

The extraordinary events of the past week bring special acid to the test for media performance. Are we presented with a reality as it is or are we handed cliches within which to package for ourselves the new and terrible into hackneyed formulae for predictable melodrama, easy sentimentality, and facile jingoism?

If you are in my Dissent class, then you should look to see how these presentations may be instruments of disinformation and sentimental stifling of thoughtful analysis of the meaning of the horror and evil. If you are in my Mass Opinion class, then the views expressed by politicians and pundits and the polls presented in the media which tell us what we are thinking or are expected to think, should be analysed accoridng to the Smith-Bruner-White paradigm and the others suggested by the first and third chapters of APO and especially by Peter's trenchant comparison of what people really think with what they are told others are thinking (third person factor) and the spectacle/deliberation aspects of public opinion.

If you are in the graduate course on Law and Communication, you should see how crisis constricts freedom and is often used as an excuse for what Krugman calls political profiteering (Mayor Guiliani roundly condemned the "gouging" of merchants and con men who seek to use the tragedy as a chance to exploit people's fears, idealism and generosity for their own ends) using the events to push a selfish and partisan agenda just as in WWII some businesses saw the war as a chance to make huge profits while people were distracted by more grave concerns.

We will be reading articles and columns which I feel raise questions that are often ignored in the compelling drama of spectacular destruction and epidemic suffering. Read and weep, but more important, read and think.




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