I should have known it all along but, for some reason, it has always eluded me. I knew that watching the news did not foster a sense of informed awareness. Even the local channels’ evening broadcasts could raise my blood pressure twenty points.
Part of what drives my anxiety when watching the news is, well, the news. The shooting of teenager Ralph Yarl, guilty of finding the wrong address and of being Black, drives me mad. He’s a model citizen: top of his class academically, musically talented, athletically gifted, according to one of his teachers, “just the nicest young man in the world.” The elderly White shooter says he was frightened by Yarl’s presence because, you know, Ralph Yarl is Black and racism is real.
In upstate New York, the car in which Kaylin Gillis, age 20, was riding mistakenly went to the wrong address. As they tried to turn the car around the homeowner, Kevin Monahan, 65, came onto his porch and fired two shots into the car. Kaylin and the shooter were both White. Fear blended with guns is real.
Just writing about these stories stirs my rage. My country has more guns than people. So far in 2023, we’ve had more mass shootings than days. We elect lawmakers who make no laws against guns, and governors like South Dakota’s Kristi Noem who proudly told a National Rifle Association convention that her two-year-old has already been given two guns and a pony named Sparkles. What could be more American? Or more infuriating?
Seven decades ago Senator Joseph McCarthy created the Red Scare. He spotted communists everywhere: in the government, in the military, in your local mayor’s office. Aided and abetted by his slippery attorney, Roy Cohn, McCarthy was famously stopped by a single question, “Sir, have you no shame?” McCarthy had no more shame that his modern incarnation, Donald Trump. Thinking about it is incredibly frustrating.
My point? There’s plenty of bad news to go around. Black motorists fear being stopped by White cops with guns. Teachers who used to carry chalk and attendance charts are told they should carry a 45 automatic. Immigrants fear deportation after they’ve crawled through snake-infested deserts for a job in America; they’re branded “rapists and murderers” and more than 40% of the country’s poor children are children of immigrants (NYT, 4/8/23). All bad news.
I have no sympathy for Tucker Carlson. I wish he’d been fired before he was allowed — encouraged, actually — to convince his two million viewers of lie upon lie upon lie. It’s no surprise that he privately detested the ex-president while publicly spreading the myth that Trump was his friend. Carlson was never asked the right question: “Sir, have you no shame?”
Ridding Fox News of Tucker Carlson won’t rid me of the low-level angst and high-level dread I experience when receiving the news. There’ll be a new Carlson in a moment, and the new Carlson will follow the formula that drove the old Carlson: We make money by generating fear.
A dozen years ago Psychology Today (6/7/2011) warned about fear-based media: “News is a money-making industry,” we were told, “one that doesn’t always make the goal to report the facts accurately. In truth, watching the news can be a psychologically risky pursuit which could undermine your mental and physical health.” No kidding. Twelve years later, I get it.
Fear-based news stories prey on the anxieties we all have and then hold us hostage. …In previous decades, the journalistic mission was to report the news as it actually happened, with fairness, balance, and integrity. However, capitalistic motives associated with journalism have forced much of today’s television news to look to the spectacular, the stirring, and the controversial as news stories. It’s no longer a race to break the story first or get the facts right. Instead, it’s to acquire good ratings in order to get advertisers, so that profits soar.
It was a prophecy fulfilled by Rupert Murdoch and his family, the capitalist puppeteers pulling Tucker Carlson’s strings and cashing their checks.
Here’s how it works:
News programming uses a hierarchy of if it bleeds, it leads. Fear-based news programming has two aims. The first is to grab the viewer’s attention. In the news media, this is called the teaser. The second aim is to persuade the viewer that the solution for reducing the identified fear will be in the news story. If a teaser asks, “What’s in your tap water that YOU need to know about?” a viewer will likely tune in to get the up-to-date information to ensure safety.
In a strange way, I’m comforted. It isn’t just me. It’s everyone. We’re vulnerable because some news really is bad, because we’ve been separated from our neighbors by a pandemic, because racism and other isms are evil. And our vulnerability is manipulated by a “news” formula specifically created to make us afraid. We stay tuned. We turn the page. We get hooked. It’s a system run by merchants of fear who profit from our vulnerability. And it’s enough to raise everyone’s blood pressure.
School teachers in Florida dread the tyranny of Ron DeSantis; as the Orlando Sentinel reports, they’re “leaving in droves.” Parents tremble when sending their children to the local grade school lest its their school’s turn to become a bloody shooting range.
And Tucker Carlson will be replaced by someone else whose interest is not to inform, not even to entertain, but to generate ratings and profits by creating suspicion and fear.
At some point, someone needs to ask: Have you no shame?