One of the most pervasive forms of communication, television not only provides an immediate eye witness to history but also enables society to speak to, for and about itself. This is the foundation that underpins Terrorism TV: Popular Entertainment in Post-9/11 America by Stacy Takacs, a book which exposes some of the ways the media was used to communicate discursive strategies designed to prime the American public to accept war and aggressive security policies as a justified response to terrorism. Although previous research has explored journalism’s dissemination of a discourse supporting militarized security practices, Takacs correctly argues that there have been few accounts of the role played by entertainment media, particularly television. Subsequently, by building on the work of scholars like Michel Foucault and Richard Grusin, this book investigates the construction and perpetuation of a conservative common-sense understanding of the “War on Terrorism”. However rather than regurgitating the simplistic assumption that broadcast media is used simply as a tool of propaganda, Takacs delves into the more complex socio-political systems that work through a participatory culture. Indeed Takacs argues that the public were not duped into accepting the extension of U.S. hegemony or restrictive domestic security policies but that ‘patriotic programming […] resonated with and exacerbated the public mood in ways that proved conducive to the conduct of the War on Terrorism’ (p. 57).
Employing a multidimensional approach which combines content, political, industrial and discourse analysis with media paradigmatic perspectives, the book’s central concern is the melodramatic framework of news media and entertainment formats which encouraged the public to view the 9/11 attacks as an act of evil perpetrated against an innocent and victimised America. Narrativising the events in this way reproduced a good/bad opposition familiar to viewers and propagated an illusionary American exceptionalism which marginalised other concerns such as U.S. foreign policy and cultural imperialism. Methodologically this book uses a few illustrative case studies from a range of popular television genres in order to qualify the author’s assertions. As such, it sheds light on often underexplored genres and texts while also interrogating better known examples. In addition, because the seven chapters that constitute this book along with a detailed introduction and epilogue follow a chronology from the production of consent for war to the expression of dissent and ambivalence, each chapter and section is able to build upon the last.
The introduction maps out some of the ways in which media was used to sell the War on Terror and addresses how news, popular entertainment and advertising perpetuate the jingoism initiated by the Bush administration. Following this, Chapter One uses programs such as America’s Most Wanted (1988-) and The West Wing (1999 – 2006) to show how “The War on Terrorism” discourse was transformed into a common-sense understanding through the exclusion of alternative perspectives. Furthermore the media not only solidified a narrow identity of righteous ‘us’ (Americans) versus a pathologised degenerate ‘them’ (terrorist), but the public were encouraged to accept an erosion of their civil liberties as a condition of their inclusion within the community of ‘us’. Chapter Two continues this theme and looks at the proliferation of counterterrorist narratives which followed 9/11 such as Threat Matrix (2003 – 2004) and 24 (2001 – 2010). This type of programming worked to remedy the ineffectiveness of real life U.S intelligence agencies while also normalising America’s state of emergency and priming the viewer to accept questionable policies of surveillance, detention and even torture that are fundamentally antidemocratic.
The next three chapters discuss the ‘militainment’ format (programming with military themes and content) and demonstrates the extent of militarisation’s expansion into social life. Commencing with Chapter Three’s look at the military-media coproduction of the War on Terrorism with programmes likes Making Marines (2002) and Profiles from the Front Line (2003), Takacs outlines how reality TV presented individual soldiers as ordinary people. By creating an identification between the soldiers and the audience, these shows ‘also promoted an identification with the values and disciplinary logics of militarism as a regime of conduct’ (p. 101). In a similar vein, Chapter Four looks at scripted ‘militainment’ shows like JAG (1995 – 2005) which, Takacs proposes, reworked real-life events to correct potentially criminal behaviour and perpetuate the myth of American benevolence and heroism which underscored the War on Terrorism. Diverting from the previous focus on the palatable depiction of the war, and one of the most pervasive assertions of the book, Chapter Five looks at the challenges posed to prevailing discourses as the conflict progressed into an invasion of Iraq: at which point more ambivalent narratives began to circulate which questioned the legality and morality of the invasion. Nevertheless Takacs argues that programmes such as Over There (2005) and Generation Kill (2008) were not celebrations of the military but they weren’t outright condemnations either. Instead, these shows emphasised the nobility of the everyday soldier and, in doing so, depolitised the war and America’s imperialism. In short, these programmes facilitated audience identification with soldiers and further engrained the normalization of military in the social psyche.
The final chapters demonstrate how television progressively sought to question the rhetoric of national innocence that was produced and framed by the post-9/11 discursive strategies. Focusing on satire and science fiction, Chapter Six explores how television contributed to the unravelling of the political consensus by bringing marginalized and oppositional perspectives into mainstream culture. In particular, Takacs notes how fantasy television ‘opened a space for dissent to register as something other than a negative, or “anti-American,” impulse’ (p. 200). This encouraged the public to take a more active role in considering America’s foreign and security practices even if, Takacs concludes, consumer behaviors and dissenting voices were channeled into narrow spaces controlled by the commercial interests of media conglomerates. Finally completing the chronology from accepting war as a heroic response to challenging the justification of such practices, Chapter Seven discusses the proliferation of physically and mentally wounded soldiers on network television. Opening with a look at the melodramatic framework of reality shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition (2003 – 2012) and scripted dramas like Without a Trace (2002 – 2009) and Bones (2005-), Takacs argues that such shows emotionally move the viewer rather than politically mobilising them. By ‘reducing the political to the personal’ (p. 214) such programming does little to disturb the continuance of war or challenge the logics of U.S. imperialism. However, the chapter progresses to incorporate other complex dramas such as ER (1994 – 2009) or Six Feet Under (2001 – 2005) to assert that, although this personalisation of warfare negates the political context, it does enable the audience to ‘consider their own investments in war’ (p. 237).
Throughout the book Takacs makes some interesting and compelling observations. Of particular significance is the suggestion that spy programming has blurred the distinction between security and insecurity and, in doing so, all elements of life become a combat zone (a perpetuation of social militarization). Consequently Takacs is able to interrogate why people invest so significantly in such notions even though it impedes their personal freedoms. Nonetheless several criticisms do come to mind. Firstly, although it is inferred in places, the book would have benefited from a greater emphasis on the operating strategies of differing networks or, indeed, how network practices differ from those of cable channels. Secondly, the author’s condemnation of Republican policies and practices are thinly veiled amid a subtle liberal undercurrent. Another minor concern is the early assertions that primetime television self-consciously marginalised or abandoned ambivalence between 2001 and 2003 in favour of narratives with unequivocal moral clarity. While this is certainly true of a number of examples, especially those convincingly detailed by Takacs, such an assumption excludes several popular programmes which contain narrative, structural and character ambiguity such as The Sopranos (1999 – 2007) or The Shield (2002 – 2008).
Similarly, another argument I found to be problematic was that the position of white male heroism was opened to both women and ‘peoples of colour’ following 9/11 (p. 70). Regrettably, Takacs does not argue this point as persuasively as her other contentions and comparatively little textual evidence is provided. Instead, I would have preferred to have seen Takacs further interrogate scholarship on post-9/11 race and gender. I am thinking particularly of Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream: What 9/11 Revealed About America (2007) or Hamilton Carroll’s Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity (2011) which suggested that the terrorist attacks enabled a return to previous paradigms of heroic white masculinity at the expense of women or ‘people of colour’ – a term, incidentally, which is itself problematic as it assumes that the colour of whites is unmarked.
Lastly although Takacs notes that the practices of participatory culture, whereby the audience assume greater control over the systems that they were once subjected to, have made it increasingly difficult for those in power to impose a discourse or ideology on the masses, she also suggests that a plurality of perspectives engendered by a multitude of divergent audience segments has been confined to very narrow limits due to the commercial nature of the TV industries. While Takacs makes it a point to state that audiences are not passive victims of propaganda, it would have been more satisfying to read a more thorough dissection of transmedia platforms, the dissemination of a discourse to numerous audience fragments and the multifarious practices of different audience segments.
Having said this, it is perhaps unreasonable to expect so much depth from a publication that, essentially, provides a very good overview of the numerous popular genres of American television; the enormity of which would justify several additional volumes. However, further work could certainly build upon this foundation. For example, the politics of fear in the spy genre could sustain a book on its own, as could the use of fantasy/science-fiction frameworks to voice oppositional opinions to the War on Terrorism.
The above trivial reservations aside, Terrorism TV: Popular Entertainment in Post-9/11 America provides a rich insight into the circulation of discourse and the voluntary role played by broadcast media in perpetuating jingoism before, ultimately, challenging prevailing political rhetoric in accordance with audience desire rather than political directives. As such, unlike many other accounts of media, this book moves beyond simple textual analysis to ask interesting questions about the mechanisms of society while demonstrating the importance of studying televisual aesthetics and narratives to understand broader cultural concerns. As a result, this accessible and informative book will be an instructive resource for not only students and academics, but also anyone with a casual interest in American broadcasting. However, it will particularly interest those with a fascination of cultural studies, media broadcasting or the post-9/11 socio-political American landscape of perpetual anxiety and unease. This engrossing and perceptive book will, hopefully, open new avenues for discussing media’s role in a post-9/11 climate and interrogate frameworks of discourse construction and its dissemination through television.
Takacs, S., Terrorism TV: Popular Entertainment in Post-9/11 America (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2012)