Journalists suffer from the crisis crisis, warping America’s vision

Summary: The news is all about fear. Each day journalists flood the media with exaggerated stories of imminent doom without useful context. This slant to the news warps our perception of the world, with ill effects on America’s public policy. It’s the crisis crisis, as described by Peter Moore in a prescient article from Playboy in 1987 (he thought it was bad then; it’s many times worse today).

Horribleness: America's true enduring bull market
The bull market in horribleness.

 

Excerpt from “The Crisis Crisis”

By Peter Moore
From Playboy, March 1987

 

It’s bad news Biblical style: Plagues of swarming journalists are swallowing — and selling — every doomsday scenario in sight. Picture a crowded bar. Three television sets hang from the ceiling, tuned in to the network feed. This is a high tech joint, so there are competing amusements, as well: MTV: on wall-sized monitors, dueling jukeboxes, video games with synthetic voices. On top of this racket, there’s the festive roar of conversation.

That is, until the news comes on. Talk stammers to a halt and eyes are cast upward; they dart from screen to screen. The anchor men begin to talk loudly, and they’re talking crisis: drugs, vanishing rain forests, terrorism, Armageddon. They’re inflating stories to ten times their natural size, decrying the end of the world. Their graphics are flashier than video games, their footage better than MTV, their high-tension talk scarier than s-f.

In the face of this onslaught, the patrons can’t concentrate; they can’t even think. Aghast, afraid, they gulp their drinks as the hysteria level rises.

—————-

When they’ve got a crisis to hawk, news magazines love to start stories in italics. In that type face, they can get away with anything: apocalyptic fiction that would otherwise be out of place in straight journalism, even overextended metaphors for American society like the one in the paragraphs above. Italic type can also clear the way for a single anecdote to stand in for the latest trend that’s ravaging society, and it lays the groundwork for paragraphs that begin, “The sad story of Bob J. is all too familiar in America today. He represents an insidious epidemic that is sweeping. …”

As it so happens, America today is suffering an epidemic of nation-sweeping events unseen since the Biblical plagues in Egypt. In the attack of the killer trends, we are terrified on Monday by a crisis we scarcely knew existed the previous Friday, and Monday’s dark portent, in turn, gives way to the next week’s hysteria.

In horrific succession, herpes anxiety is overtaken by the plague of AIDS, which is followed by the shocking specter of Third World debt. After a brief but chilly nuclear winter, we are threatened by our own national-debt crisis and devastated by starvation in Ethiopia; then it’s back to our leaky ozone layer. Terrorists are suddenly in our midst, then the homeless-until all is swept away by crack mania.

The problems appear, the alarms sound, the cover stories and the special reports proliferate. Then the media lose interest, and it’s on to the next disaster. The phenomenon is so pernicious, it’s worthy of a cover story all its own: Call it the Crisis Crisis.

Nobody would tell you that our bloated national debt is a healthy sign, that AIDS is a passing annoyance or that crack is good for you. These are serious problems deserving of serious reporting and concerted follow-through — if only that would happen.

No, the Crisis Crisis is not a matter of what’s reported, it’s a matter of who reports the bad news and how it’s reported. This new menace spring from the number of news outlets competing to force tragic trends down our throats and the vehemence with which they deliver the goods. …

{Moore recounts some of the endless fear attacks that have afflicted America during the past decade. The drug crisis, described by Newsweek’s editor “as pervasive and as dangerous in its way as the plagues of medieval times.” The crisis from rising liability insurance costs. Radon gas in our homes.}

The swarming critters gnawing on the landscape these ays are not locusts but news-hungrey journalists … Fueling their appetites is the intense competition for attention… the networks have given the public what they wanted, which is the first rule of merchandising. But when the product being sold is the news, that age-old hustle takes on a whole new meaning.

———————- End excerpt ———————-

Fear: If allowed free reign...

Conclusions

As Moore implies, the crisis crisis has its roots in the excess supply of journalists (as seen in the many events with hordes of reporters screaming identical questions). Their desperate search for exciting stories has helped trash their credibility. For details see The long slow crash of journalism. How will it affect us?

That’s only half the equation, about the supply of stories about crises. What about the demand? Journalists write stories appealing to our fears. The skilled political engineers running large movements influence us by appealing to our fears. They would not do this if we did not like to read them.

Why have we become so fearful? How has this tilt in the news affected us, and America? Those are important question, to be discussed on another day.

For More Information

For a deeper understanding of this read Tom Engelhardt’s The United States of Fear. For something different, subscribe to Playboy Magazine.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about fear, about journalism, and especially these…

  1. Requiem for fear. Let’s learn from failed predictions to have confidence in ourselves & our future.
  2. Threats come & go, leaving us in perpetual fear & forgetful of the past.
  3. Good news about the fear epidemic: we’re learning!
  4. Debunking the hysteria about cyberterrorism. Some sensible advice.
  5. Stratfor: Debunking the Myth of Total Security.

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7 thoughts on “Journalists suffer from the crisis crisis, warping America’s vision

  1. Good find from 1987!

    The Crisis Crisis is also afflicting us here in the UK. Yesterday I listened to a “science” program on BBC radio.
    Item 1: Climate crisis, melting Antarctic ice, a billion people at risk from flooding.
    Item 2: Climate crisis, plants threatened with extinction.
    Item 3: Antibiotics crisis, superbugs will kill us all…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be fair, all the cable news channels do this to some degree. While FNC might search for the latest patriotism related outrage of the day, MSNBC and CNN with equal vehemence seek out the latest LGBT/racism/police outrage of the day.

      I do think your right on and the examined article perfectly illustrates how the “Crisis Crisis” has devalued our news institutions to the point where most Americans (including myself) routinely ignore dire predictions on climate change (which I think there is some basis for worry). Its crazy that no climate prediction, no matter how dire or outrageous, is looked at with a skeptical eye. If someone has vaguely scientific credentials related to climate change (and they are pro-disaster), they will receive an open mic with which to say absolutely anything they want without a critical follow up question. Even if journalists were more skeptically inclined about climate change, 9 times out of 10 they couldn’t even form an intelligent follow up question.

      They have rendered themselves unimportant purveyors of entertainment and have nobody to blame but themselves.

      Like

    2. Swatter,

      “all the cable news channels do this to some degree.”

      Certainly. Remember, this was written in 1987 — before the giant cable.

      “They have rendered themselves unimportant purveyors of entertainment and have nobody to blame but themselves.”

      True. But is this just capitalism? Are they giving us what we want?

      Like

  2. Great perspective. 1987. Dueling crisis like dueling banjos. America was never great. Reminds me of Michele Obama’s quote about not being proud to be an American or POTUS Obama’s pastor and the chickens and roosting.
    What is it? Not Citizens but a crowd in a Theater looking for fun? Is it that embedded? It has taken me awhile to allow that to penetrate but …. Our situation is of our own devise.
    Now I need to read Playboy???!!!

    Breton

    Like

    1. “True. But is this just capitalism? Are they giving us what we want?”

      Yes, they are to some degree, but there is quality content on all three major cable channels and some of those programs get good ratings. In that respect I believe there is hope, albeit just a glimmer. On those quality programs those journalists aspire to be more than purveyors of entertainment and try to live up to the ideal of just delivering the facts. Unfortunately, the lower quality programs take up all of the breathable air.

      I am not sure capitalism is the problem either, because we had higher quality news in the past within our system. What has changed? Could we be drifting into a sort of fundamentalist capitalism?

      Like

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