Dan Gainor

“We’re going to scare you to death.”

That’s not the advertising slogan for “Saw XVII.” It might well be the motto of modern journalism. “If it bleeds, it leads” has always been a news motto. Somewhere along the way, news went from public service announcement to slasher flick.

The latest example is the attack of the killer tomatoes. All three broadcast networks covered the deadly “salmonella scare” or “tomato scare” sweeping the nation. In all, we got 20 stories and briefs on three broadcast networks – nearly 34 minutes of gripping TV about the red menace.

The level of hype would have you thinking hundreds were dying. One person has died apparently because of complications related to the tomatoes, and he was already ill from cancer. Another 200 or so got sick. The number of those sickened is fewer than get killed by lightning each year. If you are afraid of the tomatoes in your salad, it makes about as much sense as running out and buying yourself a lightning rod. Ben Franklin would be so proud.

The media culture certainly encourages such paranoia. “Today” co-host Kathie Lee Gifford urged viewers on June 10 “just don’t eat some tomatoes for a couple of weeks until we figure this out.” Her broadcast teammate Hoda Kotb said health concerns make it “hard to eat anything.” Gifford went on to bemoan the previous spinach crisis and say even cheese could be questionable because “it could come from a mad cow.”

That over-the-top response explains the corporate overreaction to the red scare. According to Bloomberg, McDonald's Corp., Panera Bread Co. and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. all pulled tomatoes. I fell victim to this media-fed paranoia as even a local Mexican restaurant dropped Pico de Gallo from its menu.

Hit me with lightning; just spare me Pico-less tortillas.

The complications from this media hype would make you sick if you grew tomatoes for a living. Irresponsible journalism is crushing what USA Today describes as the “$2.7 billion fresh-tomato market” – already costing it millions of dollars. The story is “a disaster for tomato growers in Florida,” said CBS’s Kelly Cobiella.

Bloomberg said 37 percent of the people in a phone survey were “worried they or a family member might be sickened by” tomato-based salmonella. Nationwide, that 37 percent would equal more than 100 million people.

This is standard stuff for the evening hype operations run by all three networks. The avian flu scare hurt the poultry industry just two years ago. The U.S. nuclear industry has never recovered from media coverage. In fact, most industries must survive the media fear factor – food, energy, autos, airlines and more.

Dan Gainor

Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Free Market Fellow and director of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute.