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COVID-19, stress and the dangers of our media 'pundemic'

COVID-19, stress and the dangers of our media 'pundemic'
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The next front line in the COVID-19 battle will be struggles with the psychological damage. Concerns over society-wide anxiety and depression are increasing as people face the physical and economic fallout of the pandemic.

But there’s a contributing factor to that growing alarm hiding in plain sight. Call it the “pundemic,” the parade of on-camera and online pundits delivering daily doses of dread and doom, based less on science and more on science fiction.

Speculation is the sourdough starter of most cable and digital news; talking heads are an inexpensive way to fill endless air time and website space. For political junkies and news obsessives of all stripes, this is a perfectly suitable form of entertainment. By stoking anger and exaggerating fears, commentators bond with audiences and keep them hooked. But these tactics take on a strong scent of unhelpful hysteria when applied to the pandemic and how it will affect our lives.

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Like most everything these days, punditry pandemic panic falls along a political divide.

More liberal-to-mainstream commentary seems to delight in figuring out just how miserable the post-coronavirus world will be. For example, a quick Google search of the phrase “Will we ever again …?” uncovers such end-of-the-world reveries as: “Will we ever dance again?” “Will we ever fight over restaurant reservations again?” “Will we ever get to bob for apples again?” … and “Will we ever wear bras again?” 

Other dark prophecies run the gamut from whether our cities will survive to how it will become “second nature to recoil from handshakes.”

At the same time, some more-conservative voices bark out reasons why nothing will change at all, if only because the entire pandemic is an invention of sinister forces soon to be exposed. Circulating through the right-wing biospheres of blogs and cable are debunked claims that the Chinese created the virus in a lab, that local governments are inflating mortality rates, and that — somehow — this is all going to benefit Bill Gates. Meanwhile, various celebrity doctors show up to push unsubstantiated cures.

Missing in all of this is exactly what commentary and analysis are supposed to provide: context.

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Every talking head and every prediction appears completely devoid of perspective, knee-deep in some Continuous Now where history and experience offer no lessons and no comfort.

It doesn’t diminish the impact of this pandemic to note we have been here before, many times throughout thousands of years of human existence. Nonetheless, our cities somehow survived. We continued to shake hands and dance and make restaurant reservations. Conspiracy theories cropped up in earlier contagions, too, but the causes behind each contamination turned out to be more prosaic: rat infestation, dirty water, and fleas — but not Bill Gates.

In 1981, long before cable news and the internet, science fiction writer Ted Mooney invented a malady called “information sickness” in his novel “Easy Travel to Other Planets.” It was caused, Mooney wrote, by the massive amounts of information generated and consumed by humans every day. Symptoms included the inability “to tell where one thing left off and the other began.”

That feels like a very real byproduct of the pandemic today, spawned by unbroken streams of punditry that don’t increase our understanding — and don't even really intend to — but only add to confusion and fear, to depression and anxiety.

There are antidotes.

As the virus drags on, some information consumers have begun to limit time with cable news and push laptops away before diving too deep inside an online rabbit hole. Television ratings show more people are, instead, turning to the network evening newscasts; apparently, 22 minutes of the latest headlines — without a pundit in sight — is quite enough. Think of it as a small dose of real information that inoculates against the fevered commentary all around us.

We’ve all learned that the best way to avoid a fever is to stay far away. This may be a good time to social distance ourselves from the punditry pandemic.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.