The news as a series of hysteric fits by America. Why? How can we get a grip on ourselves?

Summary: Modern American news is best seen as a helix of semi-serious hysteric fits. That’s why our thousand and one reform movements accomplish so little; why we have almost no influence on public policy. This suggests a different path for those working to make a better nation. Post your thoughts on this in the comments. This is the second of two posts today.

Fear by Van Gogh

Swine flu, global cooling, famine, resource exhaustion, Alar on apples, Avian Flu, North Korea, crack, Iran’s nukes, Swine Flu, Al Qaeda, Saddam’s nukes, peak oil, NSA scandal, hyperinflation, Yemen as America’s greatest threat,  China controls all our rare earths, the Taliban, global warming, Ebola, now ISIS and torture and the campus rape epidemic. Some were repeated every decade: the government is going broke, the dollar is becoming worthless, Iran will have nukes soon.

Some of these were exaggerated by experts. Some were correctly debunked by experts.

Some of these were minor threats, exaggerated into dire threats. Some were largely imaginary. Some might become serious threats in the future, warranting modest sustained action today.

Each has its day in the news as the greatest crisis, then disappeared like a pebble dropped into the sea.

In few of these did the news media provide useful context for these at a useful moment; rather they stoked public hysteria — often too late for it to mean anything. Journalists need clickbait to get readers; news media companies need content to fill the space between ads.  “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Peter Moore wrote about this in the March 1987 Playboy as ”The Crisis Crisis”. It’s become more worse since then.

For all of them the American public policy debates consist of sequential bouts of hysteria unconnected to actual public policy. I doubt events would have run differently if there had been a news black-out so that the public knew nothing of these things, and TV news was replaced by episodes of “South Park” and “Phineas and Ferb” (the first for insights about ourselves, the second for inspiration). Perhaps we’d be better off having done so. We don’t seem to have gained anything by our attention to the vast flow of information on these issues. Consider the man-years — the person-centuries — burned uselessly.

We are led like sheep by our fears, easily aroused because we credulously accept what we’re told by our tribal leaders — and because we feel so weak. Meanwhile our serious problems go unaddressed, often unnoticed until too late (e.g., rising inequality and falling social mobility). We’ve forgotten that we’re strong when we stand together.


Fearful faces in the dark
Fearful faces in the dark

In the 1990s I gave 3 speeches a week, mostly to service clubs (I paid my booking agent $30 per and got free meals). The specific topics varied, all on the theme (from George Gilder) that the good news is that the bad news is wrong. During the past 7 years I’ve written on the same theme here. The feeling has grown of futility about this project. It’s like treating the individual symptoms of syphilis. Pouring more water on a rock to make it wetter.

These bouts of hysteria come like buses. They’re each different, but overall like stones on a string. The superficial news flow is clear, but I don’t see the underlying pattern driving these events. There must be one.

My guess (emphasis on guess) is that we’ve become disconnected from the organizations of collective action in America — from community to national, whether public or business (e.g., unions, associations), or private (e.g., Rotary, Boy Scouts). We’re like a wooden toy I had as a child, with a crank turning brightly colored wooden wheels — fun but it did nothing. So the news has become entertainment, untethered to our actions and so sensationalized. This is just more evidence — adding that in dozens of posts here — that we have become the weak link in the Republic. The people running everything (the 1% and their staff, our foes) have learned that they can ignore us, while the news has become all emo (like the music; see Wikipedia).

If correct, this implies that reformers must focus on re-connecting us to each other — rather than pushing specific policies (specific policy measures become tactical goals, not strategic objectives).

Marches about police violence, campaigns to save the A-10 Warthog aircraft, save the night rallies, flooding Congressional offices with mail — the whole panoply of public policy agitation is insane (except tactically). Repeating the same actions hoping for a different outcome. Which is why we are losing, slowly but steadily. We’ve been losing for several decades by most metrics.

The activists in these and the thousand other reforming movements are, in my experience, good and well-intentioned people. But we are a bucket brigade pushing back the tide. People do these things because they’re fun social activities hopefully serving the public interest. They often do good, helping individuals and families. However, broadly speaking, they have nil influence on public policy.

Enough for now. This is another chapter in a long series repeating this message in different ways (see below for links). It’s diagnosis. We’ll discuss actions on this another day.

For More Information

The opening line is an allusion to the great short story “Time considered as a helix of semi-precious stones” by Samuel R. Delany (1968). Well-worth reading; here’s a pdf.

Fear dark, use light

Other chapters in this long series:

  1. Good news about America
  2. About information and disinformation
  3. About the quiet coup now running in America
  4. About reforming America: steps to political change



6 thoughts on “The news as a series of hysteric fits by America. Why? How can we get a grip on ourselves?”

  1. Thanks for the post. I think one reason why the public is allowing itself to be preoccupied by the media’s obsession with hysteria is because that fear is easier to personalize. Fear in the news, especially when it dwells on personal risk, shifts the focus to our self-interests in two ways: it triggers our our sense of self-preservation and speaks to a need for certainty. The risk that naturally accompanies Interaction and cooperation is already a challenge to overcome when it comes to personal insecurity without the media further adding to the problem.
    I believe this understanding, along with that of the mutual and productive benefits of collective action, can go a long way towards moving past this self-interest driven obsession. A couple of posts I wrote last month further explains these views. The first uses the Ebola situation to discuss the question of personalizing risk ( and the second argues for a de-emphasis of certainty in order to move beyond an individually focused society ( Happy Holidays!

  2. What you say sounds about right, FM.

    I cannot say when this began but it was quite a while ago. My best guess about how it started is that people who wanted to motivate other people found fear to be a greater motivator than hope. As Americans became interested in more and more diverse goals and beliefs, motivators found that the only thing that could unite large groups of people (shoppers, voters, etc.) was fear.

    In a way, 2008 Obama’s presidential campaign, although it was only empty pleasant sounding platitudes was a last ditch effort by the forces of hope to bring hope back into the political process. Unfortunately, it WAS only empty, pleasant sounding platitudes, which turned victory into a resounding defeat. Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign returned to the now time-honored approach of “vote for me or [insert fear here] will get you.”

    The problem with exclusively using fear as a motivator is that as the public survives each scare (Ebola does not appear immediately likely to wipe out the entire population of the US), the motivators lose a bit more credibility and it takes more fear to move the people again.

    Eventually, the public tunes out even the most dire fear-based forecasts and large communal actions becomes impossible. Although it is a defeat for the motivators, it is the ultimate victory for those who would like to act without limits. The 1%, military leadership that wants unending warfare for personal gain, wall street financiers, even the president act with increasing boldness because the motivators have burned out the public’s will to act with too many imaginary fears.

  3. As I understand it, until the 1980’s news divisions of the networks were sort of “loss-leaders” in that they were allowed to focus on what the public NEEDED to know (at least to a large degree), over bringing in ratings. That all changed when most networks were bought by bigger firms, who were all about profits. So ever since we have had whatever brings in the highest ratings–what the far-left or far-right audience WANTS to know.

    As you keep pointing out, most of the public don’t CARE about how hyped up, or how much is missing from the news, to provide what they SHOULD NEED to become informed as citizens.

    1. Pgrommit,

      I agree with your comment, but frame it differently.

      Markets provide what we want. The 3 major channels were long able to collude to provide what they thought we needed. Competition in news forced everybody to conform to their customers’ desires. Hence the sensationalism.

      In a low margin business dependent on corporate advertisers and government leaks, the absence of investigative reporting — or even journalism — is understandable.

      What I find odd is how this matches with our rock-bottom confidence in the news. Do we want garbage, but despise it (perhaps like our relationship with McDonalds)? Or is there a market for reliable news not met by current providers (despite the massive overcapacity of news media)? Or is reliable news not possible under current business conditions (perhaps the new oligarch-funded model will do better)?

      Or have I described the situation incorrectly?

  4. Research shows one facet of the problem with journalism

    The growth of the science PR industry has resulted in an overly exaggerated presentation of research findings“, Alasdair Taylor (PhD Chemistry, Fellow at U Nottingham), London School of Economics blog, 3 June 2014 — Excerpt from opening:

    Anyone who has read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News will be aware that mainstream journalism is in a crisis. Newsroom cuts have seen journalists forced to produce more copy in shorter time with less resources. “Churnalism”, the phenomenon of reporting press releases or wire copy ad verbatim as news stories, has grown over recent years. Science journalism is not immune to these woes, as illustrated by keynote speaker Dr. Andrew Williams, a lecturer in Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Williams, who investigates the news coverage of science, quoted one anonymous science journalist who complained they were now only able to dedicate an hour for a story, whereas once it would have been an afternoon or more.

    As the field of science journalism has contracted, the science PR industry has grown to fill the vacuum. Consequently, churnalism is now common in science reporting too. Its not just the private, profit-driven media that’s effected. Another speaker, Dr. Felicity Mellor of Imperial College, reported that even in the BBC up to 75% of science stories were sourced directly from press releases.

  5. Pingback: 2014.12.21 year reviewing and reflecting | Noise

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