Manufacturing Fear Itself

Terrorism. Gun deaths.
Federal debt. Mortgage fraud.
Ebola. Not expanding Medicaid.
Missing airliners. Climate change.
Within too much of modern journalism, a perverse news calculus is at work. That which has little likelihood of ever harming or impacting us enjoys a steady stream of intense, breathless coverage, creating a constant background buzz of dread. By contrast, the banality of actual, everyday crisis gets routinely ignored, subsumed under a media tide of sensationalist speculation. As a result, we’re trained to be most scared of what should scare us least.
It’s hard not to see this behavior as another unwelcome legacy of the post-9/11 era. Following that attack, the press willfully denuded its own accountability powers and engaged in broad (but not uniform) credulity during the lead-up to the Iraq war. Those mistakes are by now well documented, of course. But what still stubbornly remains is the fearful tone of coverage that so famously accompanied the Bush administration’s false claims.
Of anyone in the press, New York Times journalist James Risen may be best suited to speak to this climate of ongoing fear. After all, he has played a singular role in puncturing our government’s post-9/11 veil of secrecy and misconduct, and for his troubles he’s become a target of a government investigation that threatens to jail him if he doesn’t reveal his confidential sources. But this kind of egregious overreach by our federal government is simply de rigueur today, as he noted on CNN’s Reliable Sources recently:
“Oh, I think fear sells. And I think, unfortunately, it's easy to do a lot of fear-mongering and get ahead politically in the United States. You know, terrorism is a real threat, but we shouldn't be overstating it.… That's what bothers me the most is we've allowed ourselves to become terrorized. And we've done that to ourselves.”
Risen’s right, of course. He was referring to the ever-widening maw of our sprawling national security apparatus. But take a further step back and his language could just as easily be applied the now non-stop saturation crisis coverage that colors so much of our national discourse. This constant hyping of the next dire threat to our-way-of-life-as-we-know-it has conditioned the media’s response. So much so, that when President Obama didn’t immediately begin hyperventilating over the threat posed by ISIS, some in the media establishment practically begged for him to scare them more.
Over time, this mindset weaves a fabric of fear into the language of the news. It becomes a kind of journalistic currency; its frightening narratives a handy frame of reference for viewers. Particularly in the world of cable news, with its constant pursuit of “BREAKING” and “DEVELOPING” news events (and the goosed ratings that go with it), the coverage exudes an almost desperate need to lurch from one crisis or disaster or epidemic to another. Thus, at the beginning of October—coincidentally, just after the inflection point where news interest in ISIS was surpassed by Ebola—one could witness a kind of official meme handoff on CNN, when it ran this ridiculous chyron: “Ebola: The ISIS of Biological Agents?”
Needless to say, Fox News has mastered the art of fear-mongering news coverage. Indeed, given something as easy to manipulate as Ebola—a potentially deadly disease from third-world, African countries—it takes the network a mere matter of days to, first, stoke fear and outrage with its opinion-makers, and then, turn around and cover that fear and outrage with its supposedly straight reporting. (Behold one of the most recent examples.) But credit to Roger Ailes, he knows that single-issue fear manufacturing won’t get the big ratings when even CNN is cross-pollinating threats. So no surprise, for sure, when Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace recently engaged in a “lightning round” of hypothetical nightmare scenarios on his show, including an idea that is amounts to a hat trick of right-wing fears: the combination of Ebola, terrorism and illegal immigration.
To be fair, CNN and—yes—even Fox News have also had inspiring, admirable journalistic moments of late when it comes to Ebola coverage. CNN’s media criticism show, Reliable Sources, pointedly addressed and debunked a lot of misleading and frightening news reports on the disease. And other recent commentary and reporting at CNN has done a thorough job of calling out the public and political overreactions to Ebola. And Fox News’s Shep Smith, in a monologue that quickly went viral, provided a much-needed counterpoint to the “hysterical voices” and conspiracy theorists playing on the public’s fears for political gain.
But let’s be real here. These calls for calm are mere voices in the wilderness, drowned out by a wave of other coverage that shows little of the same journalistic diligence. A cynic might find even these moments of courageous pushback against panic a bit contrived and self-serving, as they never seem to get around to pointing out their own network’s seminal role in unnecessarily spreading misinformation and anxiety. In fact, one would be hard pressed to think of a better definition of tragic irony than this CNN chyron, which, during the height of the network’s overblown coverage two weeks ago, oh-so-innocently asked: “Is there an epidemic of fear over Ebola?”
Oh, but it’s easy to pick on cable news networks, you might say. They’re always trying to over-pressurize coverage, so it’s unfair to use them as examples of panicked coverage throughout the rest of the press. If only this were true. For example, I could find no news take on the disease quite as disturbing and reckless as the seemingly blood-smeared Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover “Ebola is Coming,” which looked more like a poster for the latest horror movie than the front a respectable newsmagazine.
Not to be left out, The Wall Street Journal editorial page offered its own unique justification for giving in to the Ebola freakout. Journal op-ed columnist Bret Stephens (that is, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Bret Stephens, to my alma mater’s eternal shame) gives a bravura performance in right-wing logic, turning out an outrageous essay on Ebola that manages to be both anti-intellectual and condescending. In it, he distills down the rationalizations that color so much of our fear-based media coverage:
“The chance of your dying of ordinary flu this season considerably exceeds the chance of your contracting and dying of Ebola. But so what? … Rationalist that I am, I have a hard time seeing Ebola as the next Spanish flu. But rationalism shouldn’t exclude reasonableness, and the reasonable answer to Ebola is to address reasonable public fears about the safety of the planes they fly and the hospitals where they are treated. The alternative is a further erosion of trust, and a potential epidemic of fear, nearly as dangerous as an exotic African virus now on our shores.”
It’s really worth unpacking Stephens’s contemptible reasoning here. His cavalier “But so what?” stands as perhaps the clearest testament to anti-journalism around. He is literally endorsing the idea that the public and our politicians should ignore reality when it comes to making personal and policy decisions. What’s more, he implies the press should go along with this irrational behavior. Yes, yes, the experts and the research and the facts all argue against things like a travel ban and a mandatory quarantine, to which Stephens essentially replies: whatevs. Let’s instead give in to our “dumb” instincts and just be reasonable—a word that, of course, has a long, ignoble history of being used to excuse discrimination, injustice, and fear of others.
Make no mistake, the consequences of a press corps with such a warped set of news values are real. Over at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, authored a sobering column this past week on the societal costs of so grossly misjudging risk. In it, he made the clear-cut, actuarial case that people acting on Ebola-based fears—like choosing to drive rather than flying—will end up killing far more Americans than the disease itself.
“While the number of people likely to get or die from Ebola in the United States will almost certainly be tiny, tens of millions of Americans are already victims in an epidemic of fear that is sure to contribute to sickness and death among many.… The vast majority of those who will be harmed in this epidemic will suffer directly from the serious health impacts of fear itself.”
That some of our nation’s political leaders freely engage in this kind of ignorant recklessness is bad enough. But when the press—the supposed bulwark of truth in our democracy—routinely enables and even encourages this careless behavior, things get even worse. For this journalistic malpractice—whether it’s hyping distant threats like Ebola and ISIS or ignoring imminent ones like climate change and gun violence—erodes the public trust in the press and has a corrosive effect upon our ability to govern ourselves. When it comes to the news we produce and consume in our democracy, it’s increasingly clear that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Reed Richardson is a media critic whose work has appeared in The Nation, Harvard University’s Nieman Reports and the textbook Media Ethics (Current Controversies). Copyright ©2014 The Nation - distributed by Agence Global