America suffers from the Crisis Crisis, making us weak

Summary: A post about fear is appropriate after Halloween, especially at the climax of an election year. Today the news is all about fear. Each day journalists bombard us with exaggerated stories of imminent doom. This slant to the news warps our perception of the world, making us easy to manipulate. We suffer from the crisis crisis, first described by Peter Moore in a prescient article in Playboy (March 1987). He thought it was bad then; it is much worse today. But we need not be easily frightened, like sheep. That is a choice we each make.

fearful woman

 

“The Crisis Crisis”

By Peter Moore
An excerpt 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. …”

Panic button

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! All real, but grossly exaggerated.}

The swarming critters gnawing on the landscape these days are not locusts but news-hungry 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 shows, the crisis crisis results from an excess supply of journalists (as seen in the many events with hordes of reporters outnumbering the participants at an event). 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?

But the supply of stories about crises is only half the equation. What about the demand? Journalists write stories that appeal to our fears. The skilled political engineers running large movements influence us by appealing to our fears. They would not do so if we did not like to read this “news.”

Our love of scary stories – and inability to evaluate them using common sense – tells our ruling elites that we are mentally and spiritually weak. Easy to manipulate, perhaps cowards, even prey. We can prove them wrong. We can demand sensible news and mock journalists’ panic. Then market forces will force journalists to do better.

Fear Wolf

For More Information

Essential reading about the problem: Politics in modern America: A users’ guide for journalists and reformers.

See posts about solutions, ways to make us more skeptical and so see our world more clearly.

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about fear, about journalism, about ways to reform America, 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. Stratfor: Debunking the Myth of Total Security.
  5. Our fears make us weak and easily manipulated.

Books about our fears

For a deeper understanding about our deep weakness, read Tom Engelhardt’s The United States of Fear.

For a fun but reality-based look at how our fears are manipulated, see Fear for America: A Twitter Initiative of the U.S. Department of Fear.

The United States Of Fear
Available at Amazon.
Fear for America
Available at Amazon.

18 thoughts on “America suffers from the Crisis Crisis, making us weak

  1. In thinking about this post it occurred to me that it is not the journos or the consumers that are to blame. There is a hunger that has become an addiction that expresses itself in our need for news. The level of education, makes no difference in an addict. Logic, rationality and Larry, your making interesting posts on all kinds of subjects makes no difference when the addict is hooked.
    As an aside, my brother had a daughter (died at the age of 16) who was hooked on heroin. She was a super bright mathematician, an artist and also a junior chamber orchestra violinist. He took her to the best and brightest, had her addiction explained in one syllable bits, slowly, carefully and logically. He took her away from her friends and suppliers, cut her money and even locked her up for weeks to save her life. She had the best stays in institutions across the world. He even took her to Iceland and within 3 hours had prostituted herself to find a supplier. She returned to her habit and eventually he had it explained to him. You have an addict… you can cut her fingers and toes off one at a time and she will still take heroin.
    America needs ever increasing levels of news. it does not matter if it is real or fake, manufactured or natural. America is an addict and needs the fix. Tell them that there is a volcano under New York rather than a famine in Somalia… They need the immediacy of disaster even if its a lie…All if forgotten, forgiven if the high is delivered.
    This is an addiction to an HIGH. The base jumper, the special forces soldier, the swat team, they don’t have to be paid. They would pay you to be killed. Symptomatic of a society that is rich, increased and has need of nothing.
    Just my thought on the subject, I would be interested to hear what others think.

    1. I think you’re on to something here because I’ve had to (metaphorically) grip friends and loved ones and tell them, “Look, if a hurricane isn’t coming at your city, watching or reading the news more than, maybe, half an hour – is entertainment. If it entertains you, fine, but consider you might find something else more entertaining.”

      The astounding thing to me is that *they don’t even get high!* At least heavy drugs have a positive experience, or ease a negative one, or help you relax.

    2. More of a drip fed stupor, leaving the addict ga-ga wanting more tomorrow.
      Shallow empty lives devoid of meaning wanting to share in some way.

    3. Sf,

      I fully agree. Consumption of massive amounts of news is absurd for most people, except as a sterile form of entertainment. Websites on both Left (NakedCapitalism) and Right (National Review) provide a firehose of useless info to consumers.

      What you and 7zander ignore is the reason. It’s become too common to say that people doing things we don’t understand are like the Joker — mad, irrational. That’s seldom true. They are getting something from their consumption of news. Something they highly value. See my reply to 7Zander to see what that is.

    4. 7Zander,

      I agree with your observations, but disagree with your explanation for it. There is a simple and less extreme reason for our love of news. See A picture of America, showing a path to political reform, one of the most important posts on the FM website. It explains that the upper classes have power, so they don’t need to consume much news. The proles and underclass have sports, booze, and drugs – and little interest in news. The phenomenon you describe exists only in the outer party (known in the past as the middle class).

      Most media firms target the outer party – the large body of people interested in current events and with the income to either pay for it or to attract advertisers. To survive they must understand what the outer party wants. The media provide a mirror in which we can see ourselves.

      The outer party wants simple stories that explain events in terms of good guys and bad guys. Cheer our team! Thrill at tales of the bad guys’ dastardly deeds! They want stories that provide entertainment and catharsis plus a sense of belonging to a community (a virtual tribe). Politically ineffectual, they want to believe themselves engaged. So they consume information (becoming well-informed) and write posts or comments (21st C letters to the editor).

      This explains American’s odd disinterest in experts’ past record of failed predictions and bad advice (e.g., Paul Ehrlich on the Left, Larry Kudlow on the Right). Who cares if what we read about the world is accurate, since we have no intention of using this information. A collector of maps doesn’t ask if the maps are correct; they want pretty maps — with colorful dragons on edges. Only those navigating to a destination demand accurate charts.

    5. It was a long time ago. My brother has since passed on never having recovered. That too is a long time ago. Kipling said that one never recovers from the loss of a child.
      Thank you for your kindness.

    6. 7zander,

      I found “They” to be one of Kipling’s most moving stories. Here is a summary. It is written from personal experience, as his daughter Josephine had died in 1899.

      His son died in the mud of WWI. His third daughter, Elsie, married but died childless.

    7. Thanks for the link, I found myself deeply moved by the summary. I am not as stable or strong as I used to be and felt the stirrings of all the pain of many years ago bubbling to the surface anew.
      Kipling and my brother are far braver than I am in being able to write and explore the death of their daughters.
      After many years I am still not able to go there.
      At the risk of boring you; you might like to read his chapter on his daughter Rebecca that he wrote before he died. https://www.dropbox.com/s/7kubyq024jvl3vk/13%20Rebecca%20cut%20%281%29.docx?dl=0

  2. “Who cares if what we read about the world is accurate, since we have no intention of using this information. Only those navigating to a destination demand accurate charts.”

    Fake news for fake actors and fake adventurers in life?
    What’s the words for such a phenomenon?
    Quite an indictment of us. Yet that in itself seems to not matter either.
    This article from 1987; seems as if there is quite a history of such a trend.
    Maybe that alone is a lesson.

    1. Greg,

      “Fake news for fake actors and fake adventurers in life?”

      How we regard such things is subjective, each person with their own interpretation. But imo it is important to remember that political passivity is the norm in history. The history of the West, esp the English-speaking nations, are an aberration — or an experiment — or an attempt to build a better world.

  3. That post from earlier “A picture of America, showing a path to political reform”, which you have cited a few times, is very penetrating.

    I have gone back to it several times, and it is indeed getting to something fundamental at the heart of the matter. There is more to be said of course, and what one would replace present systems with, and how, is still problematic. But that post accurately describes something very important and basic that I have not found stated so clearly and succinctly anyplace else. One of the most important things, maybe the most important thing about our present situation.

    Like all penetrating diagnoses, once you have seen it, it seems obvious, and what you then see when you look at the same situation is a changed landscape with quite different prominent features.

  4. I remember reading something Tyler Cowen wrote, where he argued that consuming a lot of news is very damaging for stupid people, and not as damaging for smarter people. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it was that stupid people don’t have the ability to parse what they’re consuming and it overwhelms them. Smarter people can better put things into context, read between the lines, etc. Seems accurate, though pretty much everyone could do with less “news.”

    1. Dark,

      That sounds reasonable. But the more important point, imo, is that the Outer Party are reading — becoming “informed” — as an alternative to doing something. They feel good after absorbing their daily diet of info trivia, as if that makes them good citizens.

      In fact it makes them pleasant peasants.

    2. …the Outer Party are reading — becoming “informed” — as an alternative to doing something…

      Yes. Very penetrating. Don’t always agree with Larry, but this one is spot on and is a real insight.

    3. Well there’s certainly something to that, but you definitely have to start SOMEWHERE. A lot of people don’t know anything except who sang last night on America’s Got Talent and what the storyline was on Generic Cop Show recently. Speaking of, what’s that line from The Wire… “There’s nothing more dangerous than a nigger with a library card.”

    4. Dark,

      “but you definitely have to start SOMEWHERE. A lot of people don’t know anything”

      I disagree. The motive to do something if infinitely more important than the desire to be well informed about the issues (a process which has no end). An organization or movement can always use someone with a will to help but little knowledge. A well-informed person with no will to act is dead weight, an impediment. Not even a useful doorstop.

      In my 15 years as a Scout leader I met many people overflowing with ideas and information, ready to tell me what we should be doing. My standard reply was “Fantastic, and you are just the Scouter to lead that project. They usually disappeared like vampires at dawn.

      “There’s nothing more dangerous than a nigger with a library card.”

      That’s the dumbest statement I’ve heard in a long time, no matter what the race/religion/ethnicity of the person described. I suggest not getting insights from TV shows.

  5. Wow, thanks.

    Maybe news is a way to keep the outer on the path the inner wants.

    I will read news differently now, just to see if that is my own perception, it does explain why the argument left and right are getting more and more extreme. Sometimes my Father used to say he envies the thick, soccer, beer and sex, progressing to soccer, beer and food as they age!

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