Too many Americans live in fear today. Persistent fear of COVID. Fear of the police. Fear of being canceled by social media crowds. Fear of extremism. Fear of Russia. Fear of the “existential threat” of climate change. The fear of fear, itself.
Americans fear in large part because too much establishment media provides a constant drumbeat of frightening shadows that send news consumers looking for places to hide their heads. Stories of doom permeate media messages today, rarely with nuanced reporting that puts threats in their proper context.
The news agenda at a micro level covers a variety of terrible events and stories, but the macro message boils down to one title: “Be Afraid”.
Propagandists assume that people end up believing what they hear most often. The constant hype of a culture of fear has rhetorically frightened otherwise reasonable Americans into irrational emotions and behavior.
The fear of COVID was so deep in people’s heads that, according to a Morning Consult poll, many vaccinated Americans are still worried about returning to their normal social activities, such as attending a wedding, attending a sporting event, or dining out. A report from the Brookings Institution showed that Americans estimate eight percent of COVID deaths are among young people aged 24 and under, while the actual figure is 0.1 percent. No wonder schools have been slow to reopen.
Another poll shows that Americans grossly exaggerate the danger of black citizens being killed by the police. This partly explains why 46% of Americans think the United States is a racist country, as it is found. research by pollster Scott Rasmussen.
Civilized societies are disintegrating under frightening conditions. Fear and paranoia are tools of manipulation, as Mussolini and Stalin well knew, generating conformity and leading to polarization as people hunt for bogeymen. Americans now too often fear their fellow citizens, demonizing people who do not vote like them or who have the same mask-wearing practices. It is difficult to identify with fellow citizens when they are seen as horrible and crazy.
The media seem to play a key role in this cultural upheaval. The motivation is not clear. The search for assessments hardly explains a concern for the sensationalism of endless ‘breaking news’ alerts and rolling dashboards of COVID deaths. One explanation could be that media executives are simply oblivious to the emotional carnage on the nation’s psyche. Some of these cadres are not known for their deep intelligence or their selfless concern for the national good.
Whatever the motivation, publicized terror becomes tyranny against ordinary Americans. Constitutional writer James Madison wrote: “Crisis is the rallying cry of the tyrant. In this near-constant rhetorical fear crisis, the citizens of Chicken Little become more willing to give up their freedoms for emotional security. Americans might wonder how repeated reporting and exaggeration of frightening crises allow the media to run a society, or at least collaborate with other sources of manipulative power, such as mega-corporations or calculating politicians.
Purdue University President Mitch Daniels spoke of the nation’s fear in his recent remarks at the promotion. He told the graduates that many of the country’s elders failed a fundamental test of leadership during the COVID crisis, “They let their understandable human fear of uncertainty overcome their duty to balance all the interests for which they were responsible.” They hid behind expert advice in one area but ignored warnings from experts in other areas that they could do harm beyond the good they hoped to accomplish.
Daniels noted that, even before COVID, there were “disturbing signs that fear was starting to erode the spirit of adventure, the willingness to take thoughtful risks … where all progress comes from.” He warned graduates that “perfect security is a mirage” and urged them to have the courage to act and go “in a fearful and timid world that calls for leadership and daring, where the greatest risk is that we stop taking risks. “
Doing all of this will require today’s college graduates to use common sense, draw their own conclusions, and not let publicized anxiety drag them down and impose cowardice.
On Memorial Day weekend, let’s be happy that the nation’s heroes who sacrificed themselves to preserve the nation’s freedom did not also live their lives in the fear created by a media maelstrom.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communications at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, journalist and political media consultant. Follow him on twitter @Prof_McCall.