Reading time: Approximately 5 minutes
Here’s a fun experiment: Go to your favorite news site and look closely at the headlines. I’ve been doing it for the past couple of days on a website I frequented too often until recently and here’s what I found:
– “Pentagon sends military forces to Jordan”
– “Turkish jets force down Syrian airliner – Tensions escalate”
– “425-pound gang member charged with grabbing boy in park”
– “Study sees rise in young stroke sufferers”
– “Calls for oversight grow as meningitis scare widens”
– “FEDEX to cut thousands from workforce”
– “Mystery monkey of Tampa Bay attacks elderly woman”
– “Jamaica steps up efforts to combat Dengue fever”
You can probably guess where I’m going here. The FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) is overwhelming. In fact, in the little experiment above, of the 30 headlines I analyzed, more than two-thirds were negative.
The truth is that negative news grabs eyeballs. It’s always been the case… There’s a conventional trope today that once upon a time, the journalistic mission was to report the news with fairness, balance, and integrity.
Yes, there was some of that, but it’s always been at the margins. The truth is that the old meme “if it bleeds, it leads” has been largely true throughout American history.
Even from our earliest days, scandalmonger “pamphleteers” like James Thomson Callender dominated the “news”. Callender, an ambitious gossip-peddling editor, was secretly financed by Thomas Jefferson to damage Alexander Hamilton’s reputation by exposing an affair between Hamilton and a married woman.
After Callender was jailed for sedition, Jefferson dropped him like a hot potato. Broke and betrayed, Callender sought revenge by exposing another illicit affair – this time between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hennings. Same as it ever was.
More interesting, the proliferation of negative news doesn’t seem to change much depending on economic circumstances. One would think that when we’re getting our economic boom on, reporting would have been more optimistic.
That doesn’t seem to be the case either. Here are a few headlines from the same news source analyzed above back on October 13, 2004, a time when America was in the midst of the economic euphoria created by the still-inflating housing bubble:
– “Chechen terrorists entered USA from Mexico”
– “Florida companies accused of price gouging flu vaccine”
– “Record number of voter fraud registrations exposed in Colorado”
– “Senator, citing terror threats, closes office”
– “Texas Congressman’s Nude photos revealed by opponent”
Same deal… More FUD.
But while negative news sells, it can completely warp your perspective and send you on a downward spiral of pessimism and despair. This is truer today than at any time in history. Yes, the “news” was no less negative back in Callender’s day, but there was less of it. Today, with our electronic gadgets always at arms length, we are figuratively feeding our brains an uninterrupted diet of battery acid.
I’ve often thought that one of the most brilliant marketing tactics of all time was the move by the pharmaceutical industry to push in 1995 for lifting the government moratorium that prevented them from advertising on television.
Pharma’s advertising during the evening news today is a perfect example of the wisdom of that strategy: Today’s newscasts are nothing more than a wasteland of negativity and fear – the perfect venue to beat us over the noggin with ads for the anxiety and depression meds that dominate advertising slots between news segments.
And that’s exactly what the industry has done… So much so in fact that Pharma today spends almost twice as much on advertising as it does on research and development.
So, why does any of this matter?
It matters because it’s symptomatic of a social order that excels in creating what Charles Hugh Smith terms social defeat – a spectrum of anxiety, chronic stress, powerlessness, and insecurity that leaves people feeling helpless to change their circumstances.
And the consequences of that are truly frightening:
On one level social defeat causes us to surrender to dependency on others (the Central State, corporations, politicians, institutions) to make decisions for us.
After all, if you’re bombarded daily with messages that the world sucks and you are powerless and helpless to do anything about it, you will necessarily look outwards for salvation rather than inwards.
And isn’t that really the goal of Pharma’s news advertising strategy? “You’re powerless and helpless to do anything about all of the negativity and fear you’ve just experienced for the past 30 minutes… Here, let us help.”
On another level, social defeat is also a major cause of many of our poor “lifestyle” choices – obesity, addiction, consumerism, and the general pervasiveness of societal anger and violence.
There’s little question that chronic stress eventually breaks down our self-control. We feel intensely stressed and we don’t know why, so we seek to lessen that stress using the only tools (all of them external) that we believe are at our disposal: food, pharmaceuticals, shopping, drugs, alcohol, etc.
There’s a better and much easier way: Disconnect from negative “news”… In fact, turn off all FUD-based negativity in your news-gathering habits. If it doesn’t aim to educate, enlighten, motivate, or inspire, get it out of your life.
The results of not doing so are subtle, and over time, toxic – an increasingly stress-filled existence that is devastating to our mental and physical health, and a learned helplessness that convinces us that we are not only incapable of solving our own problems, but that we have no choice but to passively surrender to institutions to think for us and act in our interests.