“Most of the stuff people worry about never happens.”
A little quick research attributes this little bit of what should be common wisdom to everyone from Mark Twain to Marcus Aurelius to Michel de Montaigne to “anonymous person in ‘xyz publication’ … ”
This weekend, at 8:00 eastern time on Sunday night, it will be 78 years to the minute from Orson Wells’ famous (infamous?) broadcast on CBS radio of an adaptation of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. There has been an enduring myth surrounding that broadcast that holds that tens of thousands, perhaps millions of people, who tuned in after the top of the show (and thus hadn’t heard the introduction stating that the show was a play) were taken in by the “false news reports” in the program and essentially went nuts. These stories were fueled by, guess who, the newspapers of the day. The (possibly) real story, from newer research in 2013, debunks the “mass hysteria” aspect of this narrative. Some say that the mass hysteria story was pumped by the papers because the newer medium of radio was affecting newspaper ad revenues.
Hmm. Sounds familiar.
I worked around the broadcast news business for a lot of years. Most of my adult life, actually. And sure, while I never heard anyone in a newsroom story meeting ever actually use the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads”, the practical effect of that mindset has thoroughly saturated the commercial news business for a very long time. I did hear, on a routine basis, people in story meetings hunting around on a slow news day to find someplace that had crime. Here in our area in NW Oregon, it was usually a comment like “Call Longview – they’ll have something.” And sure enough, with enough digging, a drug arrest or burglary or domestic violence complaint would become one of the top stories in the A block that night. Dull news, good news, happy and uplifting news – none of that sells newspapers, none of that brings eyeballs or ears to your broadcast, none of that generates clicks. The stuff that REALLY sells? Death, mayhem, crime, civil unrest. The Three F’s – Fear, Foment and Fallacy (FFF). Or, as I like to call it in a more playful fashion, “Crime and Slime all the Time!”
Oh, and of course cat videos and clickbait work well too – “34 ways you can die by brushing your teeth! Number 15 will blow your mind!”
Right now, today, especially with the United States standing on the precipice of a General Election in a little more than a week, the Fear, Foment and Fallacy model is alive and well like perhaps never before. Have you heard any good news coming out of the Presidential race? Really?
For many, the ‘good’ news is that on the morning of November 9 it will be over. Or at least we can hope it’ll be over, anyway … I have a feeling that FFF will continue with all of the same characters in play as they are today for a long time to come, actually. There’s money in it. Lots and lots of money for lots and lots of people and companies.
Fear works. Every politician, news director, newspaper publisher and advertising executive knows this. It’s basic Human Emotional Manipulation 101. Fear works on many levels. On the silly and trivial scale, FOMO (fear of missing out) sells millions of the latest gadgets, trendy clothing and shoes, cars, coffee, houses … On a much more important level, fear works in the formalized, government sanctioned “fear of the other” which teaches, enforces and places in to law the fear that “those people” are bad and will hurt you. “Those people” being anyone who is not 100% like yourself in every way, shape and form.
I think back to that Orson Wells broadcast in 1938 because even though we know now that the “mass hysteria” narrative surrounding that show was probably overblown in the press, with all of the attendant real-world implications of politics and government not wanting to be tarred with the same brush, some people were, indeed, taken in by the program. You can understand why, of course, when you consider the times. Every day, on the radios in their living rooms, parlors and kitchens, Americans heard the steady drumbeat of FFF even then. News Bulletins breaking in to regular programming were frequent and strident and full of torment and half-information. Of course, at that time, the very real buildup to WWII was in progress as well, with very real news coming in to people’s homes about the rise of Fascism, militarism and coming war in Europe. The fact that people were taken in by what sounded like a news broadcast about a Martian invasion makes people scoff and laugh today, but recall, again, the times. America was still, even in 1938, largely an agrarian, rural nation without a great deal of mass science knowledge. Even respected scientists were known to talk about life on Mars as if it were an established fact – unequivocal.
Of course, the lack of general mass scientific knowledge in the U.S. today is not, some would say, much better than back then, but that’s a whole other topic. But guess what, even that lack of factual science knowledge and basic science literacy is also based on FFF.
The ultimate effect of the Wells 1938 show was that the FCC eventually enacted a series of regulations prohibiting broadcast media from presenting entertainment programming as “real” news. Unfortunately, there’s no law restricting news from being presented as entertainment. So onward marches the modern Roman Colosseum show where people come in droves to see who’s going to be thrown to the lions today.
The basic human fear response is powerful. Fear triggers all manner of reactions in the body. Hormones and adrenaline flow, heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up, the fight-or-flight instincts kick in. Keep people fearful long enough and for enough of the reasons that they consider right and you can exert a tremendous amount of control over them. Fear for human beings is about survival, so we respond to it viscerally and nearly instantly. Those that want to keep us fearful for their own aims, and the billions of dollars that come along with keeping the populace generally fearful, know exactly what buttons to push and precisely what language to use to get our ol’ amygdala’s engine running.
A co-worker of mine recently had a time when he was calling in sick a lot and was having a hard time because of all the news about young black men being shot by police around the country. But as nearly any person of color will tell you, “this isn’t new – it’s just making it on to YouTube now” because the camera phone is universal. My advice to my co-worker? “Quit listening to the news.” Seriously. I can tell you from personal experience that if you subject yourself to a continual soaking in what passes for “news”, you will have no other logical response than anxiety, fear, heart palpitations, nervousness and other maladies. Is the shooting of black men by white police serious and real? Of course it is. Does it require civil action to stop it? Of course it does. But wallowing in the bad and occasionally over-hyped news about it every day may make it impossible to function normally, or to think and act as a well educated citizen. Be angry, raise your voices with Black Lives Matter, take it to the streets, take it to the ballot box. But do it with real, intelligent, thoughtful discourse – not as the result of unreasoning fear. That approach does nobody any good.
We are emotional creatures. Most people that I know are pretty good about understanding when their emotions are being manipulated by those who have to keep us fearful in order to make a living. By the same token, I know many people who are seemingly unaware of the hand that outside forces have in shaping their opinions and feelings. “I’m free to think what I want” they say. Well, actually, when you look at it, perhaps not. Are there terrible, horrific, unjust things in the world happening every day? Of course. But in the overall scheme of things – big picture world here, globally, we’re living in what is perhaps the safest time in generations. Could you be the victim of terrorism tomorrow? Yes. Could you also win Powerball? Yes. The two have, in a real sense, about the same odds of happening to you. But if you soak yourself in the “news of the day” all the time, you’ll never believe that. Am I advocating sticking your head in the sand? No. But one has to be able to separate reasoned, intelligent discussion from fear mongering.
In his first inaugural address in 1933, right off the top, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, famously:
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The man was right in 1933 and he’s right today.
Most of the stuff people worry about never happens.
Relax and stay informed as a good citizen. But turn off the damned TV.