Remember the Chandra Levy story? If you’re in your mid thirties or older, and you followed the news at all between the 2000 election and 9/11 you’ll remember the story. I’ll come back to it.
There was a time in our history that my generation and all the previous generations will still remember: not a whole lot of television stations, no internet (and limited once we had it), not a whole lot of cellular phones if any, and even cable was just a few channels. Most news came from newspapers and the local news, with the three big stations having evening news that people watched. Access to the news was more scarce, just like access to each other was more scarce before social media and portable smart devices.
That meant when one was interested in the news, one had to tune into specific times. Perhaps the most frequently updated news was on the radio where people tuned in (and occasionally still tune in) for things that impacted them most: weather and traffic.
You had to tune in on their schedule, and buy newspapers that came out on their schedule. I’m not saying people were trapped into paying attention to the news because not everyone did. But those of us who wanted the news had a few sources to choose from. Then came cable news channels. We suddenly had 24-hour news with CNN. Fox and MSNBC weren’t far behind — and I remember following the latter during the 2000 election until I was dreaming in Brian Williams’ voice.
Today you can’t hardly escape the news. There are more channels, there are more news programs, there are nearly infinite websites. They cater to every potential political viewpoint, offering their own takes on breaking news, offering editorials and opinions, offering a whole lot of words. But one thing that they have in common across them all, be they blogs or podcasts, professional or amateur, is a pressing need to freak people out.
Back to Chandra Levy. Around the time of the 2000 election, mostly the news got people’s attention with salacious stories and kidnappings. This isn’t an exaggeration: the 24-hour news would find an appealing story, either of the salacious variety or of the “cute kidnapped kid” variety, and they would talk about it seemingly endlessly until moving on, like locusts, to the next shocking story. They started ramping up this sort of thing as the internet and blogs also ramped up — more competition, both in the form of additional 24-hour news channels and the great unwashed hordes on line.
Aside from weather and traffic, most things most places are pretty boring most of the time.
The media focus on these intense, emotional reaction stories began to drown out what they spent their time on. Chandra Levy was on the news nearly constantly, without a lot of daily updates, because she was a young woman possibly killed by a congressman. It turns out, years later, that she was not. But for something like nine months there was a veritable wall of coverage across the 24-hour news cycle. Then one Tuesday in September, everyone literally forgot who she was until they finally caught a homeless man for doing it some years later.
Since then they’ve been off to the races, catering to whatever their audience likes (or fears) the most. After Hurricane Katrina, there has been a great deal of hype regarding storms. For years afterwards they waited for predictions with bated breath and over-hyped (to the detriment of people who now don’t believe the hype when a real storm is coming) every storm. Except, apart from a few very notable storms since Katrina, it’s mostly been quiet.
Because most places, most of the time, don’t have a natural disaster going on. But see, scaring the wits out of people gets them to pay attention. Viewers, eyeballs, and then… sponsors. It’s in their best interest to get you watching, or reading, just as long as you’re looking at their product so they can interlace it with ads. That’s how they get paid.
Fox News probably had their best decade centered around the Obama years. It may still be going strong, I don’t know — I usually don’t pay them much attention — but they definitely made out like bandits during the Obama time. Since the election of Donald Trump, MSNBC has seen a resurgence in popularity. Why? Because they scare the hell out of people who are opposed to Trump, just as Fox News did with people who were opposed to Obama.
Every event is suddenly a crisis. Because, most things are boring, so we have to focus on those things that drive people emotionally. It’s not news anymore, it’s condensed drama put on by bad playwrights.
These media organizations are competing with Netflix, and big budget movies, big budget shows. There are more movies and shows for consumers, at a lower overall price, than ever before. There are more books than ever before. There are more video games than ever before. There’s more music. There’s more sports. There’s more access to entertainment, at a lower price, overall, than ever before. There are more websites. And so on and so forth.
Getting noticed is harder. Keeping notice is harder. So the stories have to be more End Of Days. It’s only going to get worse and I cannot imagine that letting yourself stay at a continued state of high alert and stress is good for anyone.
Calm down. Enjoy a book. I’ve written a few…