Fear + Hyping = FYPING: The “Crystal-Methification” of 24 Hour Cable News

Remember Howard Beale, the anchorman played by Peter Finch in the film “Network?” I always think of his “mad as hell” moment when I see the latest example of 24 hour cable news networks like MSNBC and CNN and Fox shamelessly pumping overdoses of adrenaline and fear into anything they characterize as “breaking news.” Video is played and replayed, graphics and special effects get more and more dramatic, any pseudo-expert who claims to have a legitimate “Dr.” is instantly anointed an authority, the voices of announcers take on an unintentionally hilarious pseudo-gravitas, and we are off and running on our latest social panic.

Yes, I understand that the business model requires that an audience be delivered to advertisers. If audience research has genuinely shown that hyper-ventilation attracts larger audiences, more power to them. At least in the new age of digital information, we have alternatives like RSS feeds, the Internet, radio, local newspapers, blogs and all the other new technologies and techniques.

So if there are so many other choices offering the same content, why does this nutty hyper-activity still bother me? It’s that I can’t shake the fact that there are still large audiences being subjected to “news on crystal meth” whose world view is being shaped by the idea that the basic elements of human life are “fast-breaking,” “urgent,” and “exclusive.”

Hyping a balloon trip across New Mexico or a butcher closing after 30 years is one thing. But what about all the times when the news has to do with some aspect of life, health or safety that really affects the way people live? What if the news is about the efficacy of a medication? The recall of a food product? Or a new strain of the flu virus that was not covered by the last flu shot? A terrorist incident? A crib with a defective mechanism?

This is where the breathlessness and hyper-hyping can do its real dirty work, pumping up the volume so high that basic facts get lost amidst the cacophony. Let’s say the news is calling a widely used medication into question. Pity the viewer who really needs to hear the nuanced findings that will allow him or her to make an informed decision. And what of the stories completely buried under the avalanche, like the risk of falling among older citizens. Fear-hyping, call it FYPING, makes it all but impossible to communicate this nuance with care and concern for the people whose lives are affected. And how long is news actually “breaking?”

I have seen stories on the AP wire in the morning that 12 hours later are still being reported by MSNBC’s Dan Abrams with an ominous breaking news logo and nerve-shattering theme music.

Of course the answer is that the news is only breaking as long as we let it, as long we listen or watch. But never, ever try to tell me that in matters of true urgency, where health and safety are really on the line, that this is how you most effectively communicate the specific information that people really need. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and MSNBC’s Robert Bazell are notable exceptions, but most of the time frenzy reigns supreme.

And all we get is the adrenaline without the content. The fear. The hyping. The fyping.

Thank you Howard Beale. I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore.

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4 thoughts on “Fear + Hyping = FYPING: The “Crystal-Methification” of 24 Hour Cable News

  1. The Media is just a reflection of society as a whole. Fear is the primary tool of the government, the corporations, the education system, the churches, even our social structure.

    The current administration has been scaring the average American now for some 7 years with its bogus “War on Terror” – a bogeyman showed up just in time after the Communists ceased scaring us in the 90’s.

    The young persons’ fear of needing a degree for a better job has contributed to the ruination of the skilled labor sector. Fear of ending up in a service job has forced millions of college graduates to re-nest.

    The corporations, in all of their variants – from the auto industry to the advertising industry to the fashion industry – cynically use fear as a factor in reducing the buying public into self-medicating, shopaholics forever trying to allay their inner fears of not being hip enough, current enough, thin enough, etc., etc. enough…

    Social stigma is the ultimate fear factor. It used to be called “keeping up with the Joneses” – in the last decade it became “keeping up with the Joneses’ houses.”

    Fear is a powerful tool that is used against us at every juncture of our lives. The Media, by its very nature, can’t help but be the primary tool of the fear-mongering powers-that-be.

    Howard Beale was right, but I prefer to heed FDR’s “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” Understand that and you “won’t have to take it anymore.”

  2. Great article – great comments. In my business, it’s the fear from the ridiculous “war on drugs” we have to deal with. But it’s the same thing – each week there’s a new bad guy, a new threat, a new thing to fear. It’s sad. While America waits breathlessly for the next American Idol to be crowned, or for Oprah to tell them what to do next, the country is being hijacked.

  3. Jim: What kills me is that fear, on a purely tactical level, does not work.

    What confuses politicians who are almost incapable of seeing the long term, is that it DOES work in the very short term. Scare the hell out of someone and for a day or two, maybe less, maybe more, you have got them.

    So?

    If your objective was long term change — either in their behavior (drug use) or in society, the immediate fears not only fade but they morph into resentment. “Why did you scare me?”, people ask angrily. And then you have really lost them. Yiou’ve lost the teaching moment.

    The problem is that elections are short term and fear tactics can work, especially late in the game.

    But they don’t lead to lasting change, greater knowledge, or better elected offcials.

    If fear was a successful long-term persuasive tactic, we wouldnt need the great work you do in addicition and recovery.

    Steve

  4. You’ll have to excuse me Steve – I’m not used to hearing so much insight, intelligence and common sense in one day – I’m a little woozy. You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head – the fear tactics do cause resentment. And I could not agree more with what you said about politicians. I remember reading a quote once that summed it up nicely – “Years ago, politicians were always thinking about the next generation, but today, they’re always thinking about the next election.”

    We’re currently preparing a piece for our site on so-called “Clinical Studies & Surveys” that I think you’ll get a kick out of. It shows how politicized the whole drug issue is. I’ll send you the link in a day or two.

    Regards,

    Jim

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