Some years ago when I was living in Portland, there was a series of storms that led to flooding and a lot of property damage. In fact, the ceiling of my apartment collapsed. (conversation between my landlord and I at 2:30am – “There’s water coming through the ceiling!” “Can’t you put a bucket under it until morning?” “At this point my apartment is the bucket.”)
Naturally, people were pretty glued to the news for information on more storms. The area news channels were over-joyed at the ratings, and capitalized on it by, from that point forward, making every weather report about “storms,” because storms are scary. And scary is what it’s all about, isn’t it? People complain and argue a lot about bias in the media, but ultimately, for the major news channels, they all have the same bias, right? They have a fear bias. Because, to paraphrase Yoda, Fear leads to Watching, Watching leads to Ratings, Ratings leads to Money, and Money leads to Big, Shiny Things That Other People Don’t Have.
So, after that, the channel 6 Weather Man became “STORM TEAM 6”, and every time it was going to rain there was a STORM APPROACHING. So you hear that, you get scared, start boarding up windows and hoarding canned food & ammunition and…
it rains. And bear in mind that this was Portland, Oregon. It’s always raining.
The reporters would always seem so earnest, though. “There’s a storm coming!!! A storm is coming, for the love of God! Barricade yourselves and get underground! If you have 4 children but only food for 3 you must kill one of your children it’s a mercy killing there’s a storm comiiiiiing!!!!” as the weather man collapses to the floor in a pool of fear and sweat.
Remember on the original Star Trekwhen the ship would get hit, and the camera would jerk really hard to an angle, and the actors would grab the set and lean & shake? I always wish news anchors would do that – just take it to the ultimate. “Oh no! The storm is here! It’s too late!” and then the exciting music would swell, and they’d grab their desks and jerk around. Now that’d be quality news reporting.
So, the 24-news channels are entertaining because they’ve reached a level of self-parody that’s jaw-dropping. Between the desperation to fill the 24-hour news cycle and the grab for ratings it’s like watching teen-age boys trying feverishly to impress a pretty girl. And about as dignified. But no matter how matter how many graphics and news-scrolls you have, you can only make Lindsay Lohan walking to her car so compelling, and you can only sustain fear for so long.
I don’t know who else had or remembers those “Tonight at 11!” ads, but that was some gold-medal fear-mongering. You’d be watching whatever, and there’d be this short ad for the 11:00 news that’d simply say “Tonight at 11!” and then some tantalizing bit. “Tonight at 11! Has the city’s water supply been poisoned???” And you’d say, “Um, what?” and then you’d watch and they’d say, “No, of course not. What a stupid question.” But they got you – you’d tuned in.
My favorite one ever was one I remember when they said, “Tonight at 11! What would you do if you were on a bridge when a major earthquake struck???”
For those of you who are wondering: you would die.
There’s no plan; there are no precautions to take, no steps to follow during (“so remember folks, it might seem counter-intuitive, but turn your wheels into the collapsing bridge, not away from it”). You’re not going to get a seismograph app so you can check
it before racing feverishly across a bridge. But what a thing to plant, fear-wise, into someone’s head, right? That in the astronomically unlikely event that a major earthquake hits, and that when it hits you will be on a bridge, that you won’t know what to do.
So, I’m not an anti-TV person; we don’t have cable or satellite or anything, but I’m not someone who pshaw’s and snorts derisively when someone brings up television. Sure, the vast majority of it is, as Newton Minow once famously said, “a vast wasteland,” but then the Internet is one of the most transformative, important innovations in centuries and the overwhelming majority of it is, as Newton Minow recently, less famously said (sequels, right? Never the same), “a vaster wasteland.” But my point is that I’m not one of those people who starts any conversation about TV with disdain, and excuses about why I even know TV exists (“uh, the only reason I even have a television is because I won it… in a reading contest…”). After all, just in the last ten years television has brought The Wire, and Arrested Development, and Breaking Bad, to name just a few. Sometimes you do just have to marvel, though, don’t you? And also that one of the things I do miss about satellite is TV news. Sure, I get news from the Internet, but it’s too easy to find higher quality news. It’s just not the same. TV news is just so damn entertaining, and without it I have to figure out things to be afraid of all on my own. Like collapsing ceilings.