Keeping the War on Terror Terrifying

After the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I wondered whether people would remain interested in the War on Terror, or whether we’d see some flagging interest register in the polls that, just last year, placed terrorism in the number three slot of national priorities, right after the economy and jobs.

A shift in public sentiment remains to be seen, but Hollywood seems to have decided to keep mining storylines from the War on Terror. I recently co-authored a report (with Sheena Nahm) on how primetime TV dramas depict the War on Terror. We were surprised to discover that primetime generally avoided the racial and religious stereotypes that we associate with terrorism — and when we took a look at the War on Drugs, we also discovered depictions that adhered more closely to reality than to preconceptions (for example, most drug abusers in this country are white).

Among the top-rated shows in 2010 we found nine that dealt frequently and substantially with the War on Terror, including the NCIS, Law & Order and CSI franchises. After 24 went off the air in spring of 2010, no other major network show replaced it, and so the sheer volume of hours devoted to the War on Terror in primetime sunk considerably. However, Fox has a new show starting this Fall called Exit Strategy, with Ethan Hawke, about CIA operations gone bad, andHomeland, which is from the producers of 24, just started on Showtime last night.

As New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley argued in her glowing review of Homeland, which focuses on an American Marine turned terrorist,”the enemy within is always more sinister than the one lurking across the ocean.” She suggests that this helps to explain one of the key findings in our report: the majority of terror suspects in primetime dramas are white; only 14% were identified as Middle Eastern or Muslim. Several insiders that I talked to in Hollywood initially chalked this up to political correctness, but, as Stanley suggests, that’s only part of the picture.

People talk about how Hollywood latches onto trends and tries to replicate successful formulas, but I believe that the creative people who come up with the stories that fill the primetime hours are hungry for new angles, fresh perspectives and stories that feel real. They realize that they need to tell the story in a different way than we expect in order to engage our continuing interest. Our report discovered that Hollywood depictions were often in better alignment with reality than with public opinion: for instance, while a slight majority of Americans are worried about radical Muslims in America, only about .003% of American Muslims have joined a jihadist group. That’s about 100 people. But from 2009 to 2010 we see a 22% increase in radical right-wing groups, from 1,753 to 2,145 of them. Homeland is yet another show to take advantage of the disconnect between American perceptions of terrorism and the actual facts.

The TV industry seems convinced that we’ll remain intrigued. Our analysis of War on Terror storylines included CSI, CSI: Miami, Law and Order: SVU, The Good Wife, NCIS, and NCIS: Los Angeles — all of which have all been renewed for the 2011-12 season. And then there’s Chuck, which has, oddly enough, evolved into a show about thwarting international terrorists. Even Direct TV’s critically acclaimed Damages is devoting its current season to an investigation of a Blackwater-style private military company in Afghanistan. And National Geographic’s new showBorder Wars recently debuted to the network’s highest ratings ever. It tackles issues surrounding the War on Drugs as well as smuggling, terrorism and immigration.

I guess we’ve got plenty of material to work with for a follow-up report.


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