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Media spread fear, Americans listen

Media spread fear, Americans listen
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Too many Americans live in fear today. Continued fear of COVID. Fear of the police. Fear of being cancelled by social media mobs. Fear of extremism. Fear of Russia. Fear of the “existential threat” of climate change. Fear of fear, itself.

Americans are fearful in large part because too many establishment media provide a constant drumbeat of frightful shadows that send news consumers looking for places to hide their heads. Stories of woe permeate today’s media messaging, seldom with nuanced reporting that puts threats in proper context.

The news agenda on a micro level covers a variety of dreadful events and stories, but the macro message boils down to one headline: “Be Afraid.”

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Propagandists work under the assumption that people eventually believe what they hear most often. The constant hyping of a culture of fear has rhetorically scared otherwise reasonable Americans into irrational emotions and behaviors.

Fear of COVID was so thoroughly pounded into people’s skulls that, according to a Morning Consult poll, many vaccinated Americans still fear resuming normal social activities such as attending a wedding, going to a sporting event, or dining at a restaurant. A report by the Brookings Institution showed that Americans estimate eight percent of COVID deaths are among young people aged 24 and younger, when the actual figure is 0.1 percent. No wonder schools have been slow to reopen.

Another poll shows Americans grossly exaggerate the danger of Black citizens being killed by police. That partly explains why 46 percent of Americans believe the United States is a racist country, as found in research by pollster Scott Rasmussen.

Civilized societies disintegrate under fearful conditions. Fear and paranoia are tools of manipulation, as Mussolini and Stalin well knew, generating compliance and leading to polarization as people look for bogeymen. Americans now too often fear fellow citizens, demonizing people who don’t vote like they do or have the same mask-wearing practices. It is hard to generate identification with fellow citizens when they are viewed as awful and crazy.

Media appears to play a key role in this cultural disruption. The motivation is unclear. Seeking ratings hardly explains a preoccupation with the sensationalism of never-ending “breaking news” alerts and rolling scoreboards of COVID deaths. One explanation could be that media executives are simply oblivious to the emotional carnage on the nation’s psyche. Some of those executives are not known for their deep intellects or selfless concern for the national good.

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Whatever the motivation, mediated terror becomes a tyranny against regular Americans. Constitutional framer James Madison wrote, “Crisis is the rallying cry of the tyrant.” In this crisis of near constant rhetorical fear, Chicken Little citizens become more willing to give up their liberties for emotional security. Americans might ponder how the repeated reporting and exaggeration of frightful crises empowers media to manage a society, or at least, collaborate with other sources of manipulative power, such as mega-corporations or calculating politicians. 

Purdue University President, Mitch Daniels, addressed the nation’s fearfulness in his recent remarks to the graduating class. He told the graduates that many of the nation’s elders failed a fundamental test of leadership during the COVID crisis, “They let their understandable human fear of uncertainty overcome their duty to balance all interests for which they were responsible. They hid behind the advice of experts in one field but ignored the warnings of experts in other realms that they might do harm beyond the good they hoped to accomplish.”

Daniels noted that, even before COVID, there were “troubling signs that fearfulness was beginning to erode the spirit of adventure, the willingness to take considered risks … from which all progress originates.” He warned the graduates “perfect safety is a mirage,” and urged them to have courage to act and go “into a fearful, timid world crying for direction and boldness, where the biggest risk of all is that we stop taking risks at all.”

Doing all of that will require today’s college graduates to use their own gumption, make their own conclusions, and not let mediated anxiety drag them down and impose cowardice.

On Memorial Day weekend, let’s be glad the nation’s heroes who sacrificed to preserve the nation’s freedom didn’t also live their lives in fear created by a media maelstrom.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.