Did the extra cup of coffee or the TV news cause my anxiety? Or should I attribute my uneasiness to the news headlines blaring over my car radio as I brake to a stop on a ten lane Los Angeles freeway? The media will report on any “news” that might produce anxiety in the reader, listener or viewer.
Like my fellow sufferers from exposure to untold dangers and impending calamities, I look for redress in shopping (even if only for Prozac). I don’t want to sound paranoiac, but I sometimes suspect that the mass media intends to induce shopping behavior. Just because of who pays the bills for the news!
So, the mass media reports uncritically on a government official’s remarks that scare people. Still reeling from the attacks of 9/11, the public now learns that it must fear a new form of terrorism. On May 6, John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control, “revealed” that US intelligence has concluded that Cuba possesses a biological weapons capacity and, worse, has shared this germ warfare technology with other “rogue states.”
This publicized accusation colored the atmosphere for former President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Cuba and provided a right wing, pro embargo context for all discussion of the Cuba issue for the next few weeks.
The media gave immense amounts of space to Bolton’s undocumented but fear-provoking accusation and, days later, offered only a few lines to Cuban President Fidel Castro’s strong denial. In order to win big space in the media, I suppose Fidel would have had to say: “If Colton doesn’t retract that outrageous lie, we’ll spray him and his whole family.”
I feel as I get sprayed with shotgun pellets of media information, true or false, but always incomplete. The media spews annoying and constant data. I take it in the eyes, ears and brain.
The charge against Cuba had clear political motives, but to what do we attribute mass media’s coverage of transportation and natural disasters in the third world? Like the emphasis given to the accusations about bio-warfare potential in Cuba without affording equal space to the refutation of the charges, so too do transportation disaster stories tend to increase anxiety levels while simultaneously creating mysteries that the media leaves unsolved.
In the second week of May, for example, yet another Haitian boat loaded with migrants sank. The boat was overloaded, the press reported. The newspapers and TV don’t explain why so many Haitians boarded an overloaded boat. Presumably, they were bound for Florida.
Should we conclude from the report that Haitians are desperate and therefore undesirable as immigrants? Or, we get responses like “oh well, it was only Haitians,” as if dying at sea somehow relates to one’s being Haitian. We get no insight into the nature of Haitian poverty, or the role the United States played in the internal affairs of that impoverished island.
A May 4 Los Angeles Times 14 line article reports that a ferry in Bangladesh capsized in a storm with 400 people aboard. Police feared hundreds were dead, but “as many as 100 people were reported to have swum to shore or were picked up by other boats.” Then, you learn an apparently important detail: “The ferry sank nearly two hours into the trip from Dhaka, the capital, to Patuakhlai, 95 miles south.”
The New York Times ran a similar, slightly longer story the next day. Neither story said why the ferry capsized. Both implied that a storm had caused the tragedy. Yet, storms don’t cause the capsizing of the Vancouver-Seattle ferry or the passenger ships that cross Lake Michigan.
Was this storm so powerful that it simply knocked the boat over? Was the ferry captain drunk and maybe steered the ship into a reef? Was the ferry unsafe because of poor construction or poor maintenance? Did it not have enough life rafts? Well, I could go on guessing. But how good it feels to shop for something you don’t need or want after digesting the bare details of a massive catastrophe.
How many short accounts have all of perused of fatal train wrecks in India or Bangladesh, busses going over cliffs in Peru killing fifty passengers and twenty chickens and ferries sinking in the Philippines with hundreds drowning? Rarely do we learn the cause of the mishap. Should we assume that third world drivers and pilots have less competence than those that steer our public vehicles, or that third world trains, busses and boats are poorly maintained?
One of my students concluded from reading such short accounts of calamities that third world people are prone to bad luck (“God doesn’t seem to bless them”) or that they lack adequate disaster relief agencies. The implied message in many of these disaster stories is: think twice about taking any ground or sea transportation in the third world and thank the Lord that we have a National Transportation Safety Board to impose safety standards on public vehicles.
As President Bush told people after 9/11, don’t be afraid to take a plane and go to Disneyland – whether you want to or not.
We rarely read in the mass media about how systemic pressures by those who manage the world economy have forced third world farmers to substitute cut flowers and macadamia nuts for corn and beans and other staples. Nor do we learn about how such policies can lead to hunger and even starvation. The deforestation of the third world, for industrial wood use, chop sticks and packing cases, has also led to climate changes; in turn, droughts and floods?
To this day, IMF and World Bank experts lecture third world peasants, those who have fed the world for a millennia, on how they should forego planting their traditional crops, which they know about and with which they can feed themselves and, instead, try to attract foreign investors -supposedly to benefit their national economies. Yet, the experts fail to address the established character of foreign capital, which has proven to be more fickle than Hollywood movie stars.
The media, a veteran reporter assures me, doesn’t want to get into complicated explanations about the roots of large-scale tragedies. It prefers to stick to the gory facts and readers or viewers can draw whatever implications they wish.
How can one dram any logical conclusions if one has just received a shotgun blast of data? The newspapers and TV make priorities. They give tiny space to a ferry tragedy that claims hundreds of lives in Bangladesh and several pages to a Los Angeles commuter train that collided with an oncoming freight train in which three people died. In early May, the LA Times gave banner headlines to the case of a 33 year old southern California teacher who ran off to Nevada for a day with a fifteen year old student. They did or didn’t do the unspeakable act.
Local news always demand space, a veteran reporter scolded me. And how many Bangladeshis live in the Los Angeles area? What’s a few hundred dead Asians compared to a home grown sex scandal? But while the media routinely reports the causes of death in the obituary section, it often neglects the causes of large-scale third world death in the news and opinion sections.
Ironically, the US population has become ever more third world in origin. Do newspaper publishers and TV news executives still assume that their South Asian readers care little about following up on the initial loss of life reports from that part of the world?
Despite the existence of a large population of Korean origin in southern California, the LA Times did not cover a late April United Nations warning that mass starvation looms in North Korea if that government doesn’t receive additional funding for food supplies. Indeed, as Sam Smith reports in the May 3 Progressive Review, UN aid officials said in early May that the World Food Program, UNICEF and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had issued a joint statement that more than 6 million North Koreans face acute shortages of food, medicine and drinking water.
The papers and TV provided regular and critical coverage about the breakdown of even the facade of democracy in Zimbabwe as President Robert Mugabe patently rigged his recent re-election effort. Reports abounded about unfair attacks on opposition candidate, the censoring of the press and the intimidation of honest judges. But the same papers have provided scant coverage of the current drought in Zimbabwe’s where five and half million children face serious food shortages.
Take the May 3 report of an Indian Air Force jet on routine patrol that crashed into a bank in a city in northwest India and killed at least eight people. The pilot, who survived, reported that the “Soviet-made fighter” went into engine failure. Possible conclusions: Lousy Soviet-made jets? Or just a careless pilot bailing out and letting his plane crash into a populated area?
Compare that bad-newsworthy event, which leaves the reader baffled, with a warning from the World Food Program that the 2.6 million people it is currently feeding in Southern Africa could double in a short time because of harsh weather conditions, economic and political instability and the spread of HIV/AIDS. “The situation is extremely critical,” said WFP regional director Judith Lewis.
Or, we learn from the Los Angeles Times that the extreme right in England has won a few local elections, but read nothing about an impending famine in Sudan. Food and Agriculture Organization Director General Jacques Diouf called on representatives of countries participating in the 27th FAO Regional Conference for Latin America and the Caribbean in Havana to intensify efforts against hunger, which afflicts 54 million people in the region.
Large scale accidents and procedural rights violations certainly merit coverage, but why emphasize those stories to the detriment of massive starvation reports that governments could stop by rapidly supplying food? Since sensitive people would certainly respond with concern to reports of massive starvation, I would assume that the media would report them. It couldn’t hurt shopping patterns!
Behind the selection of what gets reported and what doesn’t, lies, among other factors, the accessibility of the tragedy site to news photographers. TV news editors have concluded that without pictures it’s hard to keep an audience’s attention, so it’s best to minimize such stories.
Yet, in the so-called information age, TV news has claimed a right to present its version of “the world tonight” as serious discourse, albeit it presents it inside of an entertainment format. Newspapers try to compete with such packaging by juicing up their stories with color photos.
Reflect on Aldous Huxley’s warning in Brave New World that when the prestigious fountains of information burlesque our culture they also threaten to shrink and trivialize it.
When a right wing ideologue like John Bolton issues an alarming but totally undocumented allegation about Cuba’s supposed biological warfare potential, the reporters should have asked him for proof. Bolton, like other ultra reactionary types who occupy high positions in the Bush Administration, understands that in an atmosphere of mindless reporting on third world threats or accidents, he can spin the media in his direction.
The public’s right to know the facts – the reporter’s job – doesn’t enter into either Bolton’s or the news editors’ criteria for making news. By treating the world’s events in scandalous modes the public becomes not only anxious, but detached from reality. The news, in other words, helps to remove people from participating in their historical drama.
So, don’t blame your all of your anxiety on the caffeine in your morning coffee.