Where Are the Sharks of Yesteryear? Who Killed the Bird Flu?
You're on to something big here, Steve. It's not the role of journalism to point out everything in our lives that might bring us to some bad end (from man-eating sharks to asbestos insulation); rather, journalism must help us discriminate between dangers that should properly concern us (household accidents, metabolic syndrome, smoking) and dangers that threaten only the minutest fraction of the population.
Thanks Rodger (Morrow): He operates one of the very best blogs in America -- one worth reading regularly.
John Stossel emphasized the post hoc, ergo proper hoc ("after this, therefore, because of this") fallacy in his 20/20 program ("Scared Stiff: Worry in America"). As Rodger suggests, we worry about a multitude of things -- mostly at the urgings of the Mainstream Media (MSM) -- over which we have no control.
One great example cited by Stossel was the so-called "Summer of the Shark," which occurred in 2001. In those days before 9/11, the nation apparently had a shortage of things to worry about. So, Time magazine and the usual gaggle of left-wing, ratings-obsessed "information" outlets decided it was time to worry about . . . sharks.
We don't have a lot of sharks in the Pittsburgh area, outside the aquarium at the zoo. Thus, we kept our own shark worries in control. However, the rest of the nation became convinced there was a good chance of their being eaten by creatures right out of "Jaws."
In fact, the "Summer of the Shark" had little basis in reality. Contrary to the media's implications, the summer of 2001 was not an especially bad year for swimmers. The number of shark attacks in American waters was about average. There was no basis in fact for the national uproar. It was just a case of media hype.
The media also has a "thing" about the Ebola virus, the flesh-eating one. Of course, here in my catacomb in Ambridge my chance of getting Ebola is something less than my winning the Big One on the Powerball. If I were to move to Africa, the probability of a virus beginning to consume my flesh might be higher, but only marginally so.
But what about the "deadly" bird flu, something of a media stand-by? We've heard that, potentially, it could be as destructive as the Influenza Epidemic that occurred in 1917-1918. In fact, the number of Americans killed (or even infected) by bird flu has remained steady at zero. That same number holds for the birds afflicted in our great land, who seem remarkably resistant to avian flu.
On Stossel's program, the extremely wise Stephen Moore said, "What sells newspapers is bad news." We might add that, when it comes to the media, hysteria sells. Breathless reporting, combined with forecasts of doom, jacks up the ratings. In Pittsburgh, PA, our weather forecasters regularly predict something roughly equivalent to the end of the world. As one Pittsburgher noted recently, the reality is that we get not the Twilight of the Gods, but rather four snowflakes.
As Rodger Morrow points out, we as a people need to begin worrying about things over which we have some control. He mentions "metabolic disorders." As an individual who surprised himself by having adult onset diabetes, I know what he's talking about. I never thought much about diabetes -- largely preventable -- until I had it. Now, I think about it daily.
Ebola and shark attacks are exciting -- and scary. Diabetes is, if you don't have it, relatively boring. Shakespeare's Falstaff talked about "cakes and ale," neither of which I can consume anymore. My diet and my personality begin to converge, both of them bland. Diabetes reaffirms the old dictum, "Sin in haste, repent at leisure."
If you scare people, you get big ratings. If you tell them, Steve Maloney has diabetes, you get the sounds of silence. The reason the old street preachers carried signs saying, "The End is Near!" is that nothing less would get anyone's attention. In that sense, those bedraggled sign carriers acted as the first media consultants.
Today, in Iraq, a car-bomber -- a designation that means homicidal maniac -- killed 18 young soccer players near Baghdad. In generally, the media treated that horrific event as a "dog bites man" story, as something hardly worthy of the designation "news." The point seems to be: if we depress our viewers, we will lost them.
Perhaps media executives and news directors see the dead soccer players and ask: "What else is new?" Perhaps they think wistfully, "Where are the sharks of yesteryear?" Or, "What's Britney Spears doing lately?" Or, "Any new cases of Ebola or bird flu?"
Some years ago, I was comfortably seated -- along with a few other souls -- at "Froggy's," a Pittsburgh watering-hole of yesteryear. We'd had one of those blood curdling weather forecasts, suggesting that an Oswego-like blizzard was imminent. Actually, we got our usual four snowflakes.
Watching all his potential customers wait in traffic as they evacuated the city, Steve "Froggy" Morris muttered the following words: "Stay in your homes; you will not be harmed."
Stay in your homes; watch your TV; read your newspaper, and you will not be harmed.
Now, in the February of our discontent, "Froggy's" is closed -- and life is slightly less worth living.