Network scare tactics bring in viewers

Watching cable news the last several weeks suggests a disheartening if inescapable conclusion.

The terrorists have won.

Now to be fair, hurricanes, tainted Chinese products, sexual predators, bird flus, and deranged mass-murdering students have also won, but their specific intent is generally not to provoke fear.

Terrorism, by contrast, is a tactic to wreak psychological havoc against more powerful foes. And in cable’s hyperventilating reaction to every whiff of a threat — real, imagined or “gut feeling,” as Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff recently put it — the forces employing those methods were either stunningly prescient about media trends once cable news sprouted second and third heads or, more likely, stumbled into this nurturing environment.

Chertoff’s statement — blisteringly ridiculed by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann as another of the Bush administration’s “shrill and curiously timed cries of ‘wolf'” — unleashed the dogs again, coming after botched bombings in London and Scotland. Tuesday’s release of the National Intelligence Estimate yielded yet another “breaking news” barrage, with renewed parsing of vague possibilities filling cable’s rolling “alert” strips.

Addicted to this adrenaline rush, the news channels unwittingly reward nebulous plots with the sort of overwhelming response normally reserved for Paris Hilton.

Conservative pundits, moreover — brandishing scary rhetoric to justify support for an unpopular war — emit the most alarmist howls. Listen closely, and that “rock-ribbed” American Sean Hannity sounds awfully wimpy on the subject of safety, as if craving impossible reassurances that nothing bad will happen.

Obscured by the cyclical frenzy, meanwhile, is any perspective on acceptable risks or the odds of being victimized. In that regard, USC sociology professor Barry Glassner’s 1999 book “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things” feels remarkably timely, even though “terrorism” isn’t among the hyperbolized perils detailed on the cover.

“Even concerns about real dangers, when blown out of proportion, do demonstrable harm,” Glassner wrote.

The fear-mongering approach isn’t hard to fathom, especially when jobs for journalists are disappearing faster than teenagers in a horror movie.

Terence Smith, the former media correspondent for “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” pondered on the Huffington Post whether “groupthink” took hold during the run-up to Iraq, with reporters accepting the war’s inevitability “too easily and too soon.”

More troubling, however, isn’t so much the news media’s tendency toward groupthink as nonthink — or “Televise now, think later,” producing the frothy simple-mindedness that “The Daily Show” skewers nightly.

Whatever the cause, the immediacy that represents TV and now the Web’s greatest journalistic asset is also its Achilles heel: Spewing out disjointed images and information without context, memory or conscience, while competitive zeal precludes bottling the genie now that it’s loose.

Against that backdrop, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s outgoing description of the press as “feral beasts” — while betraying obvious bitterness — is accurate to the extent “feral” describes wild, undisciplined behavior, lashing out without thought as to consequences.

So here are some modest predictions — a “gut feeling,” if you will: Terrorists will strike again. California will experience a large earthquake. Tornados will rip across the Midwest, and a pathetic loner will shoot up innocents before killing himself.

The same gut also says that Fox News, CNN and MSNBC will frantically deploy armies of “experts,” asking them what could have possibly gone wrong and why more wasn’t done to prevent it.

Collusion Course: Speaking of groupthink, there was a wince-inducing illustration of it at the TV Critics Assn. tour, when a scribe spoke for the room by saying, “We’re all distracted by the sex” in HBO’s upcoming drama “Tell Me You Love Me.”

Situate a gaggle of critics in a hotel together for three weeks, and duh, they’ll talk about television (or movies, if it’s that sort of junket). Still, there’s something unsavory about consensus permeating the gathering to the point where a writer openly admits strategizing with other inmates over how to broach the “Sex, dirty” topic.

This occurs anywhere reporters gather, but tacit acknowledgement of that social dynamic is more questionable here, mostly because TV consumption is traditionally a solitary, subjective pursuit. Perhaps that’s why the press tour’s logistics frequently make me queasy — owing to the natural impulse of most beasts, feral or otherwise, to run with the pack.

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