Athenae has a recap of some of her presentation at EschaCon on the media and how the dynamics of a failing business model, laziness, stupidity, and sensationalism are all contributing to the decline of journalism in America.
My remarks at the panel on journalism can basically be boiled down to “never ascribe to bias what laziness and stupidity will adequately explain.” What I meant by laziness and stupidity is the tendency, all across the board, to embrace the easy narrative.
The easy narrative in the form of cheap sentimentality, as in stories about how to explain school shootings to your children, or stories about how 9/11 made you love your family and go back to church.
The easy narrative in the form of exploitation of fear. Matt and I spent some time talking about all the various things which were called “the silent killer” by newscasts, but it’s the false sense of urgency, and it’s a very short step from “YOUR MASCARA COULD KILL YOU” to “TERRORISTS COULD KILL YOU” and getting people caught up in the outrage of the moment such that everything is always at a fever pitch, making you ripe for whoever can best pretend to solve the crisis you’re not really facing.
While working on the Dodd campaign, the internet team pretty much always had either MSNBC or CNN on in the background – from the time we got into the office, until the time we went home at night, the news was on. Doing that day in and day out for an extended period of time, you’ll really be surprised to find out how many things cable news outlets will label as silent killers. I mean, it’s actually pretty hard to parody (though the LOL cat above does it well) because it’s so absurd. I recall one week this fall where, within a matter of days of each other, separate reports came out on the same network about the hidden killers heat and cold.
I think Athenae is spot-on to connect the cheapening of fear through stories conveying urgent danger from mundane things to the use of fear of terrorists living in caves in the mountains of Afghanistand and Pakistan. If your mascara can kill you, you better be scared shitless of some guy with a different sounding name and different looking clothes who carries with him the most ubiquitous rifle in the world. Right? Except, somewhere along the way, a lot of Americans stopped being scared of the GOP’s and the complicit media’s drum beat of fear of terror attacks. The Bush administration has certainly played it’s “Boy Who Cried Wolf” trick enough times that I don’t know many people who take it too seriously when a Bush administration official sounds the klaxon on behalf of, say, getting telecom immunity passed or facilitating a hasty war with Iran.
I wonder if the same goes for people watching the news. When I see reports about how mascara or soccer goals or the common cold can kill Americans, I usually laugh. Most people I’m watching with usually do the same. We question how these reporters can take themselves seriously, as we surely cannot. I don’t doubt that there is a segment of hyper-frightened parents and germaphobes that views these reports and embraces the fear contained within, but I certainly hope we’re a more courageous nation than this sort of reporting suggests. I think Athenae is right, though: while this sort of reporting is a product of lazy and stupid reporting, there is still great journalism out there and there will be more great journalism if more readers demand it of their reporters.