President Obama urged Americans “not to give in to fear” in his televised address Sunday. But in terms of the way TV news operates, he might as well have been asking them not to breathe.
Fear has long been the oxygen of local news in particular, and cable news has taken that ball and run with it. Researchers long ago identified what has been called the “mean world” syndrome – the theory that heavy consumers of TV news tend to have a disproportionate view of their likelihood of being victimized in some fashion. And that appeal to fear stands at the very heart of this election cycle’s Donald Trump phenomenon, with the business mogul-turned-reality-TV star having based his appeals on fear from virtually the get-go, beginning with his warnings about Mexican immigrants and most recently with his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
The reaction to Trump’s remarks has been fierce and immediate. But TV news shouldn’t overlook (and some, like MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, haven’t) the role the medium has played in helping foster this climate. Since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, fear has become the ultimate tool to command the attention of viewers, including devices like constant “Breaking News” alerts and other alarm-inducing on-screen graphics.
One of the underestimated aspects of capitalizing on fear is that the threats don’t have to be all that common. In fact, the more exotic, oftentimes, the better. This is why certain themes keep arising over and over, such as the summer evergreen of shark attacks. Because it is so unforeseen, so irrational and can seemingly happen to anyone, terrorism taps directly into this mentality.
Trump hasn’t been coy about his fear-based pitch. In defending his latest comments on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” he overtly stated, “When you say you’re afraid, I think you should be afraid. You should be afraid of the other side, not my side.”
The idea of keeping fear at bay also runs counter to a media environment that makes it difficult to avoid bad news even if you’re nowhere near a TV. One need only look at a phone or tablet, scan Twitter or Facebook, to find out when something dreadful has happened. As much as many of us would like to take a break in terms of news, it’s become almost impossible to completely unplug.
The Los Angeles Times frittered around the edges of this in a piece that asked whether blanket coverage of mass shootings can shift public opinion. But that’s actually the wrong question, since the truth is most people who already harbor strong views regarding, say gun control, can retreat to partisan outlets that will simply reinforce their existing beliefs.
The more pertinent question is whether that sort of relentless coverage exacts a psychological toll – prompting twinges of apprehension in public venues, even if, intellectually, we realize the long odds against anything bad occurring.
That’s not to say the threats faced, specifically terrorism, should be downplayed. But the perspective regarding one’s likelihood to be affected is a casualty in the early phases of any tragedy. Such fears, moreover, are further stoked by our entertainment options, from “Homeland” to “Quantico,” which can easily be confused with making viewers feel better informed regarding such topics, in the same way everyone seemed to think they were a forensics expert during “CSI’s” heyday.
The irony is that the media-bashing aspect of Trump’s campaign – which plays so well among his supporters – ignores how the media has helped incubate the seeds that have made his approach politically viable. Indeed, even those who steadfastly oppose him now have a new fear-based idea to peddle – namely, the prospect of a Trump presidency.
So the next time pundits want to compare the way Trump is conducting his presidential run to reality TV, the analogy shouldn’t involve “The Apprentice.” His candidacy, thus far, actually owes a much stronger debt to “Fear Factor.”