The Case For Freaking Out America

My latest column examining “why Americans are freaking out about the Ebola outbreak” elicited some pushback from the Washington Post’s Daniel Drezner.

Drezner makes several points (some of which I agree with; some of which I don’t), but generally dismisses my suggestion that the media plays a large part in stoking fear. “The ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ ethos of news,” he writes,” is hardly unique to the present day, it’s been a staple of local and cable news since I was just a wee little commentator.”

And I’m old enough to know he’s correct. I recall that (as a wee little commentator, myself) much of the early paranoia surrounding the AIDS epidemic was overwrought. (Not all of it was stoked by the media, but rumor had it that you could catch it by being bitten by a mosquito — using a public toilet — or even playing basketball with Magic Johnson …)

But you know what the difference was? We didn’t have 24/7 cable news or Twitter in the 1980s.

Now, I’m not suggesting that’s the only difference. There are a lot of real reasons why a normal, rational person not addicted to Twitter or cable news might still be convinced the world is falling apart right now.

The 1980s were a time of peace and prosperity, so let’s compare apples to apples: What if we had cable news and blogs and Twitter in … 1979?

How might that have looked? I’m guessing similar to today.

An area where we agree: Drezner argues that Obama isn’t trying to stoke fear, and to that, I concur. If his predecessor ginned up concern with his color-coded terror alert system, Obama has tried to be the opposite — a calming force.

It is Obama’s policies — not his anodyne rhetoric — that has creates much anxiety. And one could argue that this is certainly worse. Better to be worried for nothing than to have reason for fear.

Of course, there’s a fine line between irrational fear and well-placed concern. One is counterproductive, the other is necessary for survival. Wrongly-placed fear has caused our nation to do some pretty horrible things (Japanese internment camps, for example) — but worry can also cause governments to be proactive and innovative (see Iron Dome).

My point is that while it might be healthy at the micro level for the public to be spared all this anxiety, our system often necessitates public outrage at the macro level — in order to prod the government into action.

And while there is obviously now an incentive for finding an Ebola serum, one suspects there are plenty of other projects regarding national security and/or disease prevention that could benefit from a bit of public attention, if not angst.

A few questions worth pondering that (as far as I can tell) few are talking about:

1). Does the U.S. have an adequate stockpile of an antidote to sarin nerve gas — should the unfortunate need arise? (I doubt it.)

2). Do we have enough products to treat acute radiation syndrome, should a dirty bomb go off in a major city? (Seems unlikely.)

3). What about the threat of an electromagnetic pulse? (In fairness, some people are talking about it — but it’s unclear if anything is being done.)

One could now argue that — by bringing these subjects up — I am contributing to the noxious media landscape. Or, on the other hand, you could argue that these are the very kinds of questions journalists ought to be asking.

The question is whether or not the media are informing the public of real threats — or manipulating the public to click on stories or watch TV. My guess is the latter motive often wins out. But even if there is a psychic cost associated with this, one guesses there might also be a collective benefit. As they say, you’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you.