Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine Flu and Sex: A State of Perpetual Arousal

After finishing Monday's broadcast I went home to a 7 year old boy bursting with T-Ball success and a plate of exceptional chicken cacciatore and the good company of my wife. Within minutes panic broke out when Fox News' Shepherd Smith entered the room.

Immediately he warned of the coming Swine Flu epidemic. Chaos had seized Mexico.
Being the parochial thinker that I am, my attention only settled down when he shifted to the United States. Then I sat riveted, spaghetti hanging out of my shocked mouth. My seven year old pleading precociously for a vaccine. The Department of Homeland Security assured us that the President was following the threat and had already prepared for a "pandemic". [Aren't there other 'threats' they should be preparing for?].
Nearly forty Americans had reported Swine flu like symptoms and the "most brilliant and brightest" medical minds were solving the problem. Everyone was commanded to wash their hands, don't touch their eyes or mouth, avoid travel, stay away from doctors or hospitals where many diseases dwell.

Don't worry, Smith soothed us, we've faced this before. Why back in the 1930s 1 whole person died and a national panic spread across the land. Later we invented a vaccine. Now we have almost rid the land of the scavenger. Since the thirties a full 3 people have died. As he raved on I became aware that this story wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

Only one person had entered the hospital. BUT HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE IN DISTRESS BECAUSE OF SWINE FLU IN AMERICA? MILLIONS BECAUSE OF FOX NEWS' REPORTING. Only one person has been hospitalized. The few dozen others with symptoms are recovering nicely at home. Nobody has even approached death. IN THE TIME THAT SMITH REPORTED ON THIS dozens of Americans had been in fatal auto accidents.

Many people have found Fox News a voice of fresh air because it has been more conservative politically and religiously than other networks. This was an underserved market. Fox's magic, however, derives from keeping the viewer perpetually aroused by fear, sex, patriotic sentiment or conservative indignation.
FOX plans to hold viewers' attention by portraying a world always in a state of war and uncertainty. The news works best when it keeps you living in a state of perpetual fear and arousal, emotionally vulnerable and driven by sentiment. This renders viewers more susceptible to commercial and political appeals.
It's a disgraceful manipulaton of audience and a wicked abuse of trust. Read Intermirifica from the Second Vatican Council, the decree on social communications. It's a bit dated but its principles are solid and would revolutionize broadcasting.
The hackneyed line "If it bleeds, it leads" is just an old symptom of today's much more sophisticated attempt to sustain viewer attention in the 24 hour news cycle. Increase the level of threat from crime, weather, terrorism, illness, natural disaster or other tragedy. Leave people dependent on your outlet for news alerts. Always report breathlessly and with a tinge of panic in your voice. Heighten urgency and uncertainty and then promise that you are on the job ready to bring another dose of infotainment to allay the fears. It is the salt-water effect. Fox promises to inform you even as they increase your sense of dismay.
I managed to finish my meal but not the digestion. You've now gotten a picture of my brain secreting thought like my liver was secreting bile. Those swine!

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