Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Statistically, you have a better chance of being hit by lightning wearing a green hat while singing the National Anthem and watching an Andy Griffith Show rerun than of dying of the coronavirus. But why let facts get in the way of history's best made mainstream media panic ever?

Crude oil prices plummeting; stock markets collapsing; cruise ships that can't dock at port; European soccer matches held behind locked doors with no audiences. I'm reminded of Bill Murray's famous line from Ghostbusters: “Human sacrifice – dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria!”

Despite the fact a couple of thousand poor souls have lost their fight with coronavirus so far compared to an estimated 600,000 who die worldwide from the flu every year, the American mass media has staked a frenzied claim in the coronavirus realm that surpasses even its obsession with mass shootings and hurricanes. But not tornadoes, because they happen mostly in the Midwest – New York and Los Angeles media aren't exactly sure where the Midwest is.

Though he'll never get credit for it, President Trump had the only logical comments on the “crisis” to have been uttered so far: It's like the flu, it'll pass, he told us. But he was immediately inundated by the tsunami of media crazy over the virus to the point he had to spend some federal money on coronavirus just to keep mobs from burning the White House.

Bare facts of the virus' insignificance aside, the impact of the surrounding panic is very real. Even though business, industry and employment in the U.S. and for the most part abroad are booming, trillions of dollars in value has been lost, hopefully temporarily, by retiree pensions, 401ks, kids' 529 college plans and other investment vehicles due to nothing but conjecture and flame-fanning. And all of it surrounding a sickness whose only real notoriety came from being listed on your bottle of Lysol as one of many bugs killed by the disinfectant. Coronavirus isn't even a player it the scheme of likely ways to die – it's the Beto O'Rourke of the virus world.

The chain reaction has become blatantly apparent. Organizations planning public events are now terrified of liability. They've been amply warned about this "plague," so if they go ahead with their event and one of the tens of thousands of people attending becomes ill, the organization is automatically subject to lawsuits and cash settlements for putting the public at risk. When media hears about the cancellation of an event and screams it as the latest "update," the public and those organizations become even more hysterical and take more restrictive actions, which the media feeds upon again.

And it doesn't take too thick a tinfoil hat to imagine that politics in the U.S. is at least partly to blame for the panic. Think about it – the media needed something to give the Democratic presidential candidates some traction in their forever quest for Trump's crucifixion. There's trouble on that front, because the party of diversity is winnowing down to a nomination contest between two crazy old white guys. A scourging disease of Biblical proportions is a great illustration that only a big, centralized government with “Medicare for all” can save us. And by the way, the whole thing is Trump's fault.

No assessment of the media and the public's propensity toward national panic is complete without mentioning the 1938 broadcast of CBS Radio's “War of the Worlds” by Orson Welles. You remember the story – dial spinning listeners tuned into Welle's production on Mercury Theatre after the introduction, and became convinced that New Jersey had really been invaded by Martians. This was long before Senator Cory Booker provided proof. Even so, the grass fire example of media sensationalism still leads to a couple of important takeaways.

First, while social media is often credited with devaluing organized news operations, the reality is the rampant connectivity of billions of Facebook and Twitter accounts still depends on traditionally gathered media content and news makers – Meghan Markle excluded – to have something to talk about. Of course, like gasoline, it greatly lends to the grass fire analogy.

Second, the aroma of blood in the water is still intoxicating not only for the public but also for the media which feed that need in order to make careers, ratings and money. It isn't right and it isn't new, and it doesn't overshadow the tons of positive things the media does outside of over-exploring delectable, delicious tragedy. A free press is still a wonderful thing – even with a wart on its nose.

Eventually, the lack of substance from this panic will bore the media into finding a new hot ticket of the moment. Recovery is imminent. Like the microscopic germs that saved us in Welles' broadcast, it will be the media's own short attention span that will save us from coronavirus.

–Dane Hicks is publisher of The Anderson County Review in Garnett, Kan.