Aaron R. Davis
Was that whole swine flu pandemic canceled?
Where did it go? For weeks there were news reports that a plague was coming to wipe out all life on the planet, and then it just disappeared.
How anticlimactic. What am I supposed to panic about now?
Seriously, folks, why do we let the American media get the better of us like this?
Does anyone remember the Summer of the Shark? Back in June 2001, an eight-year-old named Jessie Arbogast was attacked by a bull shark. It severed the poor kid’s arm, which was later reattached. But a hungry 24-hour news cycle with nothing else to talk about turned this attack and a couple of others like it into a major news story. Bizarre, unexplainable shark attacks! An epidemic of shark attacks! Sharks invade beaches with new tactics to kill us all! Nature turns against us! Soon they’ll be flying and attacking us in our own homes!!!
Of course, it was nothing more than embarrassing news hype. Shark attacks are terrible, but they’re also a fact of life. When you go into the territory of a dangerous animal, there’s always a chance that the animal is going to attack. Have you ever seen those aerial shots of beaches? There are sharks everywhere. But most of the time no one notices, and sometimes that leads to carelessness. So there are always shark attacks.
In fact, during the first half of 2001, there were 47 previous shark attacks which received almost no media coverage. But during the first half of 2001, there was a contested election to talk about. There was stuff to talk about. But that was long over by June and the 24-hour news cycle needs to be constantly fed or, God forbid, it’ll die. And, smelling blood in the water (and the easily-sympathetic story of an eight-year-old losing a limb), the media went after the story and shook it repeatedly until it was dead.
Rationality did not rule the day. Very few reported that shark attacks were down that year by 15 percent compared to 2000. Fewer still reported that you are 250 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark. Damn thing even made the cover of Time magazine in July.
Think about this for a second. Our corporate-owned news media could’ve found all manner of positive stories to highlight. With extra time on their hands, they could’ve done some digging into important political and social issues. Instead, they chose to manufacture a dramatic and potentially bloody crisis and press it with a false urgency until everyone was afraid to go to the beach. It is, literally, a textbook example of concocting a meritless story for the sake of ratings.
We used to call that yellow journalism. Now we just call it a slow news cycle.
That slow news cycle was, as we remember, the lead-in to 9/11. Before the deadliest attack on America in history, all the news media could talk about was shark attacks. Not trying to understand international politics, or the rise of terrorism around the world, or the audacity of a Supreme Court-appointed President taking the entire month of August off. Shark attacks.
That’s what the whole swine flu story made me think about. A few people had a new flu strain and some people – far fewer than the number of people who die from the flu under normal circumstances every singly year – died, and suddenly the media manufactured a plague out of it, with the world ending in flames and the dead walking the earth. Schools closed, trips were canceled and state governments begged for Tamiflu.
So where did it go? How could something so dire and imminent simply disappear?
Well, the media had something else to talk about. And suddenly all of the stories of the coming apocalypse wound down. Kids went back to school, Mexico re-opened for tourism and right wing pundits started crying about whatever it is they pretend is a big deal. It was a slow news cycle, everyone drank a lot of fluids and made sure to wash their hands, and the whole thing died down.
The most bizarre outcome is that I know a number of people (including both of my parents) who think this new swine flu was created in a lab somewhere in order to distract us from what the government is doing. As if we need the distraction; the media’s not interested in reporting on it in the first place. They weren’t distracting us, they were simply bored. You can cry fear-mongering and propaganda all you want. But when the media get bored, that’s when they really get stupid, and stupid can so easily turn into dangerous.
But we survived the Summer of the Shark. Turns out we survived the Springtime of the Swine, too.
And I’m not even going to go into the summer when the important news story was how dangerous roller coasters are.
Just remember, common sense never plays in the media, so use your own when the media tells you it’s time to panic.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.