December 5, 2014

When my sons are lying, I know it. Too many tells. Odd facial patterns. Lack of eye contact. Superfluous enthusiasm. Likewise with Brian Williams. Anderson Cooper. Savannah Guthrie. David Muir. Even my man, Charlie Rose.
Like listening to young children, take everything uttered with a grain of salt.
Months ago, the media was lamenting high prices at the pump. Today, that media is linking the drop in oil prices to global economic catastrophe. Not surprising. Consider the underlying motives. Follow the money.
Viewers harbor this bizarre notion that the media exists solely to report the facts surrounding each day's events. Like a quorum of monks. Noble and independent. Serving society's best interests.

That naivete regarding the global media complex remains the biggest obstacle to positive, long-term investment returns. Not to mention common sense.
Once upon a time, media organizations focused on reporting the news. Edward R. Murrow. Carl Bernstein. Walter Cronkite. Charles Kuralt. H.L. Mencken. Joseph Pulitzer. Journalists who had the singular goal of distilling the day's events. Leaving the audience to determine its opinions.
During the cold war, as newspapers, magazines, radio stations and television broadcasters competed for a national audience, all outlets recognized that the nation's attention increased and focused during crisis. When Walter Cronkite began the evening's report with some exclamatory statement, his audience would more likely tune in the following night.
For decades, however, news outlets remained vigilant of their responsibilities. Reporting the news. The corresponding events and data. And leaving the public to form an opinion.
That was then, this is now.
Today's media exists under a competitive corporate umbrella. One that values profits over journalism. Newspapers teeter on the verge of extinction. Media outlets, squeezed between irrelevance and heightened competition, have committed to the only tactic guaranteed to win the attention of a national audience. One that often leaves the news as contrived as an episode of Survivor: F.U.D.
Today's mass media does not begin with the news. But with an objective. To retain as many eyeballs as possible. This, to glean maximum advertising revenue.
Towards this mission, it sows fear, uncertainty and doubt (F.U.D.) at every opportunity. Moreover, F.U.D. does not entail the reportage of the day's events. It requires the delivery of "soft commentary" by those allegedly reporting the news. Such editorializing prevents viewers, readers and listeners from having to employ any critical thought or analysis regarding the day's events. Instead, they are simply handed their opinions.
One facet of F.U.D. comes in the form of advocacy journalism, whereby a media outlet intentionally delivers a non-objective viewpoint. Usually for social or political purposes. This form of F.U.D. becomes increasingly evident during election periods, or during the debate of certain social issues, especially those of a controversial nature.
Yet another facet of F.U.D. employs the delivery of fear-mongering tactics. Plain and simple. This methodology is meant to increase public anxiety over certain events, issues and circumstances. Causing the public to remain manically attuned to upcoming broadcasts in order to stay vigilant and educated on whatever "pending disaster" the media may be utilizing to sell advertising.
Cynical? I know. But false? Then prove me wrong.
Consider October's events surrounding the so-called Ebola outbreak.
If one lived in, recently visited or planned to travel to West Africa, then this truly was a heart breaking episode that merited maximum scrutiny. But, in the United States, a nation of more than 300 million, there have been four confirmed Ebola cases. One of which, a Liberian who traveled to Dallas, actually died.
Against that backdrop, one sunny October morning, I was enjoying a bowl of Honeycombs with my young sons. Suddenly, Matt Lauer -- perhaps the most trusted face in American journalism, kicked off the Today Show with something akin to the following:
"Ladies and gentlemen, while I know they are doing the best they can, the people at the CDC are absolutely quaking in their boots right now... Ebola has arrived in America."
Yes, I'm paraphrasing. But the point is that one of the most trusted faces in American journalism led the morning news telecast with something meant only to inspire fear, uncertainty and doubt. Like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater. After which both of my sons glanced at me. Their eyes saying everything I needed to know. "Dad, should we be terrified?"
Over the next two weeks, at the media's prodding, we all believed that Dustin Hoffman was about to walk into our homes in a large, silver hazmat suit.
Clients canceled travel plans. Air traffic slowed. Hotels saw a dip in occupancy rates. Investors rushed to raise cash in lieu of the pending contagion. The market corrected 9.6 percent from September 18th through October 15th. All because the media, without any evidence, led the public to believe that Ebola was preparing to rip through the country like plague.
A good month for advertisers. Hardly so for the human race.
Then, as quickly as a breeze chills your skin and blows on bye, the attention faded. Because the media has the overly exuberant attention span of a six-year old. And in the vacuum of that former crisis, the media's attention quickly settled back on its secondary fixation -- celebrities.
If Kim Kardashian's untalented, superficial, vacuous, single-syllable speaking image appears on your television? Exhale. For it can only mean there is no bird flu, swine flu, Ebola, terrorist or nuclear threats, military crises, economic collapses, or general cataclysms about to befall an otherwise unaware society.
F.U.D. It is the enemy of a peaceful existence. The bane of rational thinking. The scourge of logic. And yet, there is an antidote.
The next time you detect a rise in the public's anxiety levels. The next time a journalist interrupts your regularly scheduled programming, face affixed with a Swahili terror mask. The next time your eight-year old daughter asks if the family should hide in a cave just beyond the city limits. Right then, remember this: today's media specializes in dishing up the lowest common denominator to an audience that prefers to avoid any critical thinking.
Sometimes? Life does imitate art. And sometimes that art reads like a William S. Burroughs novel. Or a Kafka story. Or resembles a Dali painting. Not always. But sometimes. For those of clear head and sound vision, this only enhances life's entertainment value.
Keep that in mind. And you and your loved ones will be better prepared for the next media-born, viral outbreak of severe, congestive and debilitating public irrationality.

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