In the time since I heard the first report about Saturday night’s bombing in Chelsea, many thoughts have gone through my head. Like most New Yorkers, I’ve been bracing for the next terrorist attack, but frankly, I thought it would be a more significant than this one.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it wasn’t, and I give thanks to the vigilance of the NYPD and everyone they work with to keep us safe. But commuting through and working in two probable “ground zeros” -- Grand Central Terminal and Times Square, respectively, I’m reminded each day by the constant state of high alert.
It is only a matter of time.
So my immediate reaction to the Chelsea bombing was envisioning Crocodile Dundee intoning: “You call that a terrorist attack…”
I don’t mean that as a joke, or a silly meme. I mean it like a hardened New Yorker, in the way Bostonians meant “Boston Strong” in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing: We’re tougher than that. You can take your best shots, but we’re not going to run and cower. We’re not going to live in terror. We are New Yorkers, after all.
We lived through 9/11, survived, and became a tighter, more vigilant and, arguably, more secure community following it. But you have to understand most true New Yorkers are neurotic to begin with. Try coming of age in NYC during the 1970s. That was a truly terrifying place.
My point? Big cities like New York, Boston, Paris, London or whichever gets hit next will sustain attacks. It’s a fact of modern life. It’s how we deal with them that will determine the degree they invoke terror. And yes, the current news cycle is alarming, but it’s also obligatory, and in a way, it’s also inuring.
And the real reason for this column was to put an idea out there that I’ve been thinking about ever since 9/11: The role the media plays in terrorism. In particular, how media coverage either fuels or disarms it.
I don’t have any real science for measuring it, but my gut tells me there is a hierarchy of media terrorist effects, and it is based on the ability of an attack to sustain itself and influence society. More as a provocation and a way of getting people to think about -- and hopefully discuss it -- I’m putting my own top 10 list of media terrorists out there for public review.
The ranking is based on people I think have been most successful as using terror to fuel media coverage to influence other people.
No. 1 - Osama bin Laden
Need I say more.
No. 2 - Donald Trump
Hear me out. Ever since declaring his candidacy, throughout the Republican debates, especially during the GOP convention and in his incessant bomb-tossing (“I was just being sarcastic”) comments, Trump has parlayed his way into the lead of the 2016 presidential race. (And that, at least, terrifies me.)
No. 3 - Tony Schwartz
The late-great political-media consultant, created the “Daisy” spot ushering in the modern-day political ad campaign, getting LBJ reelected — and keeping Barry Goldwater from blowing up the world.
No. 4 - Roger Ailes
Hear me out again. Whatever Ailes’ role may or may not be behind the scenes in Trump’s current campaign, he was the mastermind behind much of Ronald Reagan’s successful reelection campaign, brought us Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, thanks, in large part, to inspiring terror in the hearts of many Americans of every political persuasion.
No. 5 - Al Gore
I didn’t say media terrorism necessarily had to be used for evil. Sometimes, it’s used for the greater good (see Schwartz’ “Daisy” spot above). Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and related media inspired enough fear about climate change to finally get a meaningful conversation going about it. I just hope it’s not too little, too late.
No. 6 - Hal Riney
The late Phil Dusenberry -- and Ailes -- get much of the credit for re-electing Ronald Reagan, but I believe it was a brilliant TV commercial -- “The Bear” -- crafted by Riney that was the real reason. It also helped give Reagan a popular mandate for his “Star Wars” defense build-up, which in turn, broke the Soviet Union. The rest is history.
No. 7 - TV weathermen
Seriously, nobody understands how to invoke more irrational fear in people by using the media then your friendly neighborhood meteorologist.
No. 8 - The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization
Whether it is Zika or Ebola, nobody beats the CDC and WHO for mobilizing people through fear.
No. 9 - Timothy McVeigh
The executed Oklahoma City truck bomber wasn’t the first domestic terrorist in the U.S., but he put the concept of blowing up American cities on the map, and most likely set the stage for Al Queda, ISIS, etc. I was working at Advertising Age when he blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The trade magazine devoted its entire issue (in the days when they still printed big, fat magazines) to covering the act of terrorism.
No. 10 - Sharks
Honestly, sharks have been biting people as long as they have been going into the ocean, but they never fail to inspire fear, terror and a ton of media coverage every time they do. Just this past weekend, three separate shark attacks in Florida vied with the Chelsea bombing for U.S. terror news dominance.If you want to know what my greatest fear really is, it’s that people won’t get the point of this column. It's that terror isn't always a bad thing. It's been keeping humans safe and sound for millions of years. But how we use media to fuel or neutralize it, well, that is what keeps me awake at night.
If history is any evidence, it could well decide the outcome of the 2016 election. And then we all might have something to be really terrified about. But if you don't like my list, feel free to reorder it or nominate your own.