Manchester, England is the latest victim of terrorism’s barbarism. A suicide bomber hid outside an Ariana Grande concert and detonated an explosive filled with nails as people were leaving. This horrific account commanded the world’s attention, as any attack on women and children is additionally heinous, let alone one as vicious as this. Naturally, people wanted to know what happened, and many turned to cable news.
Cable news has created a perverse exchange where they will trade us tidbits of information for fealty to the fear they are propagating. When Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel—a drunken loser who spent his life violating every tenet of Islam—drove a truck into a crowd in Nice, France and killed 86 people, cable news ordained him an “Islamic terrorist” and a “lone wolf.” The facts of his sad life and desperation were secondary to the picture of a cunning supervillain being painted by cable news.
Last night we saw a constant rotation of the same horrific images from Manchester. Cable news does this to make sure that we're scared so we keep watching, but this practice doubles as the greatest recruiting video that groups like ISIS could ask for. It embeds the horror in our collective consciousness and enshrines an image that the globe can never forget. For the “lone wolves” recruited by ISIS, this fame is their salvation. Nearly all these attackers share a similar profile: young, male loners who fill their empty lives with alcohol, drugs and sex. Like many, they find religion at their lowest moment, yet Wahhabism is not a religion, but an ideological super weapon that is best combated by empathy and understanding, not violence—a concept that is completely foreign to our cable news networks.
If you think about cable news as a sitcom and not as news, terrorism is the star of the show. After Donald Trump attacked Syria, Brian Williams of MSNBC provided a perfect example of how titillated our media gets over war, when he said that he is “guided by the beauty of our weapons.” Terrorism is a war on civilians, which makes it exponentially more potent in its appeal to the CNN's of the world. Not only do they get to wax poetic about conflict and put their Very Serious faces on, but they get to scare the living daylights out of us in the process. This is precisely what groups like ISIS want. Terrorism isn't primarily about murdering innocent people, but using those horrific images to strike fear into a vastly larger segment of the populace. al-Qaeda and ISIS could not ask for a better outlet to broadcast their jihad than cable news.
By replaying the same images over and over and over and over again, not only does cable news accomplish ISIS's primary goal of permanently scarring the populace, but they also serve as a recruitment mechanism for these groups—creating a feedback loop that boosts cable news ratings in tandem with new enrollment in terrorist groups, all paid for by the blood of the innocent. Any moments of rationality brought on by anchors interviewing experts is immediately drowned out by the cacophony of pundits prognosticating about what we should do next, and what this means for our political environment. TV news is a cynical venture that was perfectly summarized by CBS CEO Les Moonves when he said of Trump “it may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
Like ISIS or al-Qaeda, TV news is not American, as they pledge their loyalty to a higher power. ISIS and al-Qaeda are devoted to jihadist ideology, while TV news prays at the altar of the almighty dollar. Fox News has taken a ton of heat for completely avoiding any coverage of the Donald Trump-Russia connection, but MSNBC and CNN aren't breathlessly covering that saga because they genuinely care about holding truth to power, but because that's what their audiences want. Last night exposed their cynical ploy for all to see.
Cable news is bankrupt in every way imaginable (save for actual bankruptcy), but because it still delivers basic facts and information along with its sensationalism, it maintains a certain sense of legitimacy. Just so long as they take a moment to tell us what is going on, networks can spend the vast majority of their time speculating and whipping up fear. Relatively speaking, ISIS is a small group who is undeserving of round-the-clock coverage, yet even when they do not stage a horrific terrorist attack, cable news will still find a way to shoehorn them into their coverage.
Cable news executives need to do some serious soul searching. Every time they broadcast the same images on a loop and turn a loner into a “lone wolf,” they aid terrorism in its encroach upon civilized society. The images broadcast out of ISIS’s Amaq news agency mirror those plastered all over our televisions, which exposes the commonality at the heart of both these bankrupt ideologies: carnage is good for business.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.