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Spinning Fear to Gold

(Or “Keep Calm and Enjoy the Show”)

“I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens who, reading newspapers, live and die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time.”

 Harry S. Truman

 It is, perhaps, an apocryphal tale, but in the waning years of the 19th century, businessman and publisher William Randolph Hearst, engaged in fierce competition with newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, sent famed artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to draw sketches of the raging rebellion against Spanish rule. But after just a few days in Cuba, Remington allegedly wired back, “There is no trouble here. There will be no war…” Hearst cabled back, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Apocryphal or not, it would appear that today’s media is still furnishing the war. Or at least the fear of it. A week before the Ferguson verdict I was watching one of the major news networks discuss the upcoming riots with the same certainty of sports commentators discussing the upcoming bowl games. As I witnessed their confident pronouncements of civil unrest, it struck me how much these talking heads were hoping for violence. And lots of it. Heck, bring on Civil War II: the sequel. Ratings would go through the roof. And, in case you’ve forgotten, ratings mean dollars.

Of course fear mongering doesn’t mean that there has to be actual violence to report on. In 2001, my family was living in a small village just outside Florence, Italy when we received news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. In the year following the attacks friends from the states repeatedly cancelled their plans to visit us, concerned by American news reports of “unrest” in Europe. We had no idea what they were talking about, as Florence was about as serene as Botticelli’s La Primavera. Then I traveled back to the states on book tour. Sitting in a hotel room in Los Angeles I watched a nightly news report on violent anti-Globalization protests taking place near the Duomo in downtown Florence.  I frantically called my wife to make sure that she and the kids were okay.

“Of course,” she said calmly. “The girls spent most of the day at the piazza with their friends. They didn’t mention anything.” I then spoke to my teenage daughter, who laughed when I told her what the American news had reported. “I think I saw a guy with a sign,” she said. “Non e niente, babbo. Non e niente.”

Nothing indeed.

As a teenager, I was a reporter for my high school newspaper The Colt Roundup. Filled with idealism, I decided to write a story on journalistic ethics and arranged an interview with the publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune. Sitting in the hallowed confines of the publisher’s office I asked the man what he felt was his most important responsibility as a publisher. He looked at me for a moment then leaned forward and said, “To make money.” I left his office disillusioned. It took me years to understand that he was telling the truth.

As a writer, and an American, I am a staunch supporter of a free press. But with all freedom comes responsibility. It is not any more responsible to throw media gasoline on a riot than it is to shout “fire” in a crowded theater to generate a news story. Unfortunately, bad news sells. And sells. Which is why, as one pundit opined, “The media has successfully predicted seventy-eight of the last three crises.” Had Walter Cronkite survived our day he would have had to change his signature sign-off from, “And that’s the way it is,” to, “Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

The only thing more disturbing than the mainstream media sellout are the millions of gullible Americans who gobble up the fear. Caveat Emptor, friends. Caveat Emptor. Today’s journalism isn’t yellow. It’s unabashedly gold.

Richard Paul Evans

#1 New York times bestselling author (A survivor of swine flu, bird flu, anthrax, Y2k and Ebola.)

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