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Too Much Apocalypse

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It happened again.  Another psycho went on a random killing spree.  As usual, the public is concerned with why and how this could have happened.  The expiration of the assault weapons ban, the popularity of ultra-violent video games and television violence are once again the focus of concern.  Mike Huckabee asserted that all of these episodes are happening because our public schools aren’t teaching kids about God.  What makes more sense is psychological evaluation of the particular killers rather than a simplistic panacea which would happen to benefit a pundit’s own industry.

I have my own cynical opinions about these events.  My fundamental beef concerns the wall-to-wall coverage these tragedies receive from the news media as well as the manner in which these calamities are covered.  The excessive coverage reinforces callousness – not only in the hearts of the viewers – but in the dark souls of the creeps who commit these acts.  My own cynicism surfaces immediately after one of these episodes occurs.  My first concern is what theme the news media will use in presenting the coverage of a particular tragedy and all of its tangential subplots.  The Teevee News Tragedy Exploitation Guidelines suggest that the first step involves the selection of a title that will be used for introducing the story every time it is discussed.  Alliteration is always a necessity for these titles.  After the Denver killings, I anticipated that a popular title would be “Midnight Movie Massacre”.  However, my choice was a bit over-the-top as it brought to mind images of the Crypt Keeper and Vincent Price.  As it turned out, “Movie Massacre” was a widely-used theme.  A friend of mine had suggested “Horror in Aurora”, although her choice lacked the necessary alliteration and it sounded like the name of an Ali fight.  For the most recent event, I am anticipating the use of “Slaughter at Sandy Hook” and “Kindergarten Killings”.

The second step in the Teevee News Tragedy Exploitation Guidelines involves both the selection of a visual image – or logo – for the tragedy as well as a somber theme melody.  The previously-discussed tile will appear as part of the logo.  The logo and the music will run whenever the story is introduced.

The third step in the Teevee News Tragedy Exploitation Guidelines requires interviews with people who can explain how the killer was always “a quiet guy who kept to himself”.

The fourth step involves providing coverage of the people who gather at makeshift shrines and participate in ad hoc memorial services in response to the killings.  They’re a dependable lot.  Although these individuals are always portrayed as kind, empathic souls, I would bet that many of them are the same characters who participate in Black Friday brawls at K-Mart, due to a pathological need to participate in media events – which is what brings many of them to these memorials.

An unpleasant byproduct of the saturation coverage teevee news gives to these events is a more hardened, callous public reaction to future tragedies of a similar nature.  During the weeks after the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, a series of “shuttle jokes” began to make the rounds of office water coolers, bars, parties and other social gatherings across the country.  I remember reading an article in Time magazine during that period, wherein a psychologist explained that telling such jokes is a natural defense mechanism used by people to put distance between themselves and a tragedy, which is not really a part of their own lives.  Their experience of the tragedy came from extensive television coverage of the event.  Beyond the callousness which results as such a defense mechanism, can exposure to constant saturation coverage of similar shooting tragedies motivate an individual – who might already be pre-disposed to such behavior – to commit such an act himself because he became “hardened” in the same way Saddam Hussein “hardened” his sons by making them watch acts of torture?

I suspect that a key “conditioning” effect resulting from the manner in which the news business is conducted these days, comes from the constant drumbeat of apocalypse.  Before we have fully recovered from the 2008 financial meltdown, we are now informed that the country is headed off a fiscal cliff.  Not to worry, though – the Mayans have already told us that the world will be coming to an end on Friday.  Is it really any wonder that we have been seeing an upsurge of random, mass shooting incidents?

We might find – when we are all still alive on Saturday and if the “fiscal cliff” turns out to be a fiscal bunny hill – that the number of shooting sprees subsides later this year.  Let’s hope so.


 

Y2 Cliff

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Have you become sick of hearing about it?  The Mayan End of the World is less than three weeks away and the people on the teevee keep talking about the Fiscal Cliff.  I’m still waiting for Comet Kohoutek.  For those of you who are too young to remember, here is what Wikipedia tells us about Comet Kohoutek:

Before its close approach, Kohoutek was hyped by the media as the “comet of the century”.  However, Kohoutek’s display was considered a let-down, possibly due to partial disintegration when the comet closely approached the sun prior to Earth flyby.

Our next media-hyped non-event was the infamous Y2K story.  Thousands of people started hoarding canned food, building shelters and preparing for a Cro-Magnon lifestyle because the computers thought that every year began with the two digits 1 and 9.  Yeah, that happened.

This week, everyone is talking about the Fiscal Cliff.  By now, there have been enough sober reports (and lawsuits by the Mayans) to force people into the realization that the world will not end on the 21st day of this month.  The country has found a better focus for its consensual panic:  The Cliff.  Concerns voiced by Ben Bernanke and others brought our attention to the possibility that if our government resumes its budget standoff – after the can was kicked down the road last summer – our government’s credit rating could face another cut.  As a result, Bernanke invented the cliff metaphor and everyone ran with it – despite the fact that it is not appropriate.

The best Fiscal Cliff Smackdown came from Barry Ritholtz, who wrote a great piece for The Washington Post entitled, “How important is the fiscal cliff for investors?  Hint: Not very.”  The explanation of the cliff contained in the article was quite helpful for those unfamiliar with the details:

Let’s start with a definition:  The term refers to the deal that Congress made in late 2011 to temporarily resolve the debt ceiling debate.  The “sequestration,” as it is known, calls for three elements:  tax increases, spending cuts and an increase to the payroll tax (FICA).  The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has run the numbers and finds “$180 billion from income tax hikes, $120 billion in revenue from the payroll tax, $110 billion from the sequester’s automatic spending cuts and $160 billion from expiring tax breaks and other programs.”

*   *   *

The term “fiscal cliff,” popularized by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, is really a misnomer.  As several analysts have correctly observed, the effects of sequestration are not a Jan. 1, 2013, event.  The impact of the spending cuts and tax hikes would be phased in over time.  A fiscal slope is more accurate. Additionally, as students of history have learned, single-variable analysis for complex financial issues is invariably wrong.  Because of the inherent complexity of economies and markets, we cannot adequately explain or predict their behavior by merely looking at just one variable.

Ritholtz brought our attention to a great article about the fiscal cliff hype, written by Ryan Chittum for the Columbia Journalism Review.  Chittum blamed CNBC’s “Rise Above” publicity campaign as the primary force driving fiscal cliff anxiety:

Any time you see Wall Street CEOs and CNBC campaigning for what they call the common good, it’s worth raising an eyebrow or two.

*   *   *

You’ll note that CNBC has not Risen Above for the common good on issues like stimulating a depressed economy, ameliorating the housing catastrophe, or prosecuting its Wall Street sources/dinner partners for the subprime fiasco.  But make no mistake:  even if it had, it would have been stepping outside the boundaries of traditional American journalism practice into political advocacy.  And that’s precisely what it’s doing here, at further cost to its credibility as a mainstream news organization instead of some HD version of Wall Street CCTV.

*   *   *

Last but not least is the hypocrisy of CNBC in talking about Rising Above politics.  This is the network, after all, that kicked off the Tea Party, an austerity push that was one of the more damaging political movements in recent memory.

*   *   *

It’s just not CNBC’s job, institutionally, to campaign for anything. Cover the news, as they say, don’t become it.

December 21 will come and go with nothing happening.  It will be January 1, 2000 all over again.  The fiscal cliff “deadline” – January 1, 2013 – will come and go with nothing happening.  The budget can will be kicked down the road again by the “lame duck” Congress.

In the mean time we can entertain ourselves by learning how celebrities are preparing for Armageddon.  After all, they’re here to entertain us.