News coverage of terrorist groups in the American media increasingly sounds like sports commentary. Not just because of the incessant moralizing or the play-by-play rundowns. It’s just that we waffle between “an evolving threat,” “a renewed threat,” “the #1 threat” – and all the accompanying statistics (almost as bad as baseball) – so often it’s getting just as hard to find a source with good predictive validity as it is when you’re looking for solid postgame analysis. But chatter is airtime, and airtime is money (and name recognition).
“Intelligence” is increasingly like that today.
So we have the military intelligence equivalent of sports statements like “Although this was a bad year for the team, there were some notable offensive moves by . . . ” and “Fans are showing their disappointment as the three season slump continues . . . ”. About the only thing news networks don’t do is give out MVP awards to the terrorists in question (though the publicity is sort of an award in and of itself). And then when a seminal anniversary comes up . . . all the stops go out to mark the date.
And the threat assessments put forward by any number of commentators are basically a counterterrorism version of the ESPN Power Ratings:
Indianapolis Colts: #8 this year, up from their #10 spot last year thanks to some smart draft picks for their offensive lineup and a more balanced defensive line.
And of course, like ESPN’s Power Ratings, there is no shortage of commentators to weigh in on the action, especially when the team everyone loves to rag on — the New England Patriots the Iranians — is in question:
“Absolutely. It’s a very shrewd move by them. I tell you, the checks have already been signed. There is no doubt in my mind they both have big plans in the works. They might even be working it into their nuclear option.”
“Uh-oh! The nuclear option? Fred, we know you’ve been going over that all year in your head.”
“That’s right, Leon. The nuclear option is definitely on the table. I sneaked a peak at the U.S. playbook, and I can tell you that the U.S. coaches aren’t taking this seriously at all. They practically tore the book out of my hands when I brought it up!”
“Talk about having the wool pulled over your eyes, right, Leon?”
Talk about Fantasy Football.
Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.