A new study by political scientists at Columbia University finds that three things follow from presidential pronouncements on terrorism: the media repeat the president’s remarks; public fear of terrorism increases; and the president’s poll numbers rise.
The study found that since 9/11 increases in terror alerts always made the top of the news on the three major networks while decreases got far less play. Reports the San Francisco Chronicle:
The official with the greatest ability to shift opinion on terrorism, the researchers found, is Bush, whose statements in the media about terrorism correlated highly with increases in the public’s perception of terrorism as a major national problem — and with increases in his approval ratings.
At the beginning of July 2002, for example, approval of the president’s handling of terrorism was around 79 percent. After television coverage of one statement by Bush and seven public statements by administration officials about the terrorist threat, the president’s rating rose to 83 percent.
In June 2004, approval for the president’s handling of terrorism had fallen to 50 percent. One month later, after an increase in television coverage of Bush’s comments on terrorism, that number had risen to 57 percent.
As I mentioned earlier, our handy interactive timeline can be a great tool for putting the day’s news in context. So, for example, if you click on the “Terror Alert” link you get a list of all the times between 9/11 and March, 2003 when the government scared the bejesus out of us with dark warnings of impending attacks.
Now, of course…
The Columbia study does not conclude the White House intentionally used terror alerts to influence the president’s popularity.
But, ahem, …
…[I]t is unlikely the White House is ignorant of the effect, said Nacos, who added that former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge has complained publicly that he was sometimes pushed to raise the threat level on the basis of flimsy intelligence.