Now the bad news

Posted: Oct 14, 2005 12:05 AM

News flash: We’re all going to die. Maybe not today. But soon. And suddenly. And horribly. At least, that’s the conclusion any regular CNN viewer should draw.

“The next great U.S. quake. It’s inevitable, but are we prepared?” asked anchor Kyra Phillips on Oct. 11. Actually, we’ll all be lucky if we live long enough to be killed by a quake. “Experts predict millions could die in an avian flu outbreak,” reporter Jeanne Meserve noted the next day.

And don’t forget our already devastated economy. “We’re definitely going to have to pay more to stay warm” this winter, reporter Kathleen Hayes explained. “Last year, the average household paid about $1,200 [for heating oil]. Now that will be up more than 30 percent, to nearly $1,600. It’s an increase of about $378.” Finally, “it just seems like there’s been disaster after disaster. Can all of these countries, the world, afford to help in paying for disaster relief?” anchor Betty Nguyen wondered.

CNN’s 11 p.m. show NewsNight summed up the theme: “Killer hurricanes, massive earthquakes, monstrous fires: Are these unpredictable acts of nature signs the end of days is near?” it asked on Oct. 12.

Whew. “The end” may not be near, but the end of television news ought to be, if such vague scare tactics are all it has left to offer. Unfortunately, even though viewership is going down -- deservedly so -- the old mainstream liberal media remains influential.

Of course, some people say that’s not going to be true for long. They point to the growth of blogs (Weblogs), which tend to be conservative.
Bloggers have enjoyed some notable successes. For example, blogs brought down Dan Rather last year when he peddled phony documents that supposedly showed President Bush had shirked his duty while in the National Guard.

But blogs won’t have truly arrived until they can manage to start a full-fledged media panic. Consider, for example, the flu. CNN’s not the only media outlet worried about it. A Google News search of “avian flu” turns up about 9,800 stories, including Health Officials Prepare For Bird Flu Pandemic (NewsHour Extra), Military taking steps to guard against avian flu (Stars and Stripes) and Is enough being done against bird flu? (BBC News).

If the media can create a panic about the flu, it will be the first time it’s managed to do so since, well, last year. Remember the “shortage” of flu vaccine? On Oct. 18, 2004, CBS News reported, “People are lining up at pharmacies and supermarkets in the middle of the night: old folks with oxygen tanks, sleeping children bundled up in strollers, people in wheelchairs,” to get their shots. That “crisis” eventually reached such proportions that President Bush was forced to address it during a debate.

The reality was a bit different. While it was true that vaccine maker Chiron was unable to produce any shots last year, there were still more than 60 million doses available. That would have been enough to vaccinate almost everyone in a normal year, since relatively few people bother getting a flu shot. For example, in 2002 some 12 million vaccinations went unused.

In other words, people lined up because the media warned about the scarcity of something that most of them wouldn’t have wanted if it hadn’t been scarce. By January USA Today was reporting that, “The flu-shot shortage has turned into a surplus in some areas, raising fears that some vaccine might be wasted.” Plenty was. Still, every year it’s the media that catch the flu bug.

There is at least some awareness that all this negative coverage can have an effect. Author Simon Winchester was on CNN Oct. 12 to promote his new book about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. He noted the government responded much more effectively to that quake than it did to Hurricane Katrina. “Without, I have to say, CNN, without cell phones, without the Weather Channel, without any of the technology, they did it brilliantly. And San Francisco recovered in double-quick time, much, much faster than New Orleans has a hope of doing,” he pointed out.

“And you have to wonder, maybe we [the media] make it worse in some respects,” anchor Miles O’Brien added. There’s no need for the “maybe.”

If we’re going to worry about something, let’s consider our computers. In his book “Radical Evolution,” Joel Garreau writes that our machines may soon become self-aware, at which point they might decide to reboot humans right out of existence. Now there’s a frightening thought.

How will we know if these super-intelligent computers have taken over? The first sign might come when Microsoft Word starts rejecting MSM disaster scripts and telling the producers, “These are too negative. There’s no need to scare everyone.”

We could do worse.