In a roundabout way, the media’s focus on disasters and scandals obscures the fact that conditions in America are actually deteriorating.
Detroit’s bankruptcy is making it hard for other cities in Michigan to borrow money, even cities that are solvent. The opposition to a tyrant in Syria seems to have been taken over by extremists who will bring a new tyranny. Despite evidence of widespread abuse of mental patients by staff at New York facilities, they are not being disciplined and the staff union is fighting to keep it that way. Terror bombings occurred in several countries. Heat for the buildings of the U.S. Congress are provided by a particularly pollution-heavy power plant. Two different incidents involved unarmed citizens being killed by police, but neither officer will likely face serious discipline. More revelations about surveillance of Americans render moot the previous assurances of privacy. A lonely Paul Krugman weighs in with yet another explanation that the policy prescriptions governing our economic policies have no substance and have been consistently proven wrong by events.
Every one of these example of woe came from one section of one day of the New York Times (Aug. 9, 2013).
Is the world falling apart? It seems so from that list, a long set of examples of some overarching truth that nothing is getting better. From financing our cities to protecting our rights to understanding the economy to realizing peace in the world at large, the trends don’t look good.
But is this list of gloomy events a fair summary? Does it accurately represent what is going on in the world? The world is a really, really big place; there are literally billions of events taking place at any given moment. Did the newspaper just happen to pick the worst that day?
A different front section
It’s possible to imagine a different set of stories. Volunteers build a house for a family down on their luck. A heroic group of firefighters and police save a child from drowning. A leader who built a successful company retires. A once-blighted district of a city booms with new life. Several new works of art have a public debut. Groups on all sides of a controversial issue work together and find a compromise all can live with.
Nothing like any of these stories did appear, but must have occurred someplace in the United States.
This is the problem with trying to prove a generalization from a set of examples. If you have millions of events to draw on, you always can cherry-pick examples to convince people to come to any number of conclusions.
Why, then, does the paper seem to be full of bad news? There are several possibilities.
We love unusual disasters
The traditional explanation is that the news is those things that are different than normal. “Bank robbed” is unusual, “bank customers served” is normal, and thus not newsworthy. This theory explains why routine events do not get reported. It doesn’t explain why incidents of unusual good or heroic behavior don’t attract attention.
Perhaps the issue is that we love disasters. We watch reality shows to see conflict and drama (and they are cast to ensure we get those things). We love to be shocked by celebrity misbehavior and scandal. The news only gives us what we want. “If it bleeds, it leads” has long described local TV news — news programming is constructed that way because it has been proven to attract viewers.
Keeping us afraid
More sinister explanations are also offered. Perhaps, it is claimed “they” (whoever “they” are) want us to be afraid. If we are afraid of crime (even though it is on the decline) and afraid of terrorists (even though they mostly kill people far away) then we don’t ask too many questions about why so much power flows to the government and so much money flows to the rich.
Since 1989 we are no longer afraid of the Soviets and their nuclear missiles, so we have to be afraid of something else. If not pollution or cancer-causing agents in our foods, then maybe it’s the immigrants who are coming to get us. For awhile we feared that Japan would take over the world, now we’re betting the Chinese will do it. And if not a foreign country, perhaps we can still even fantasize about a fictional zombie apocalypse that we could fear.
Terrorism provides an ideal way of stirring up general and widespread fear. It could be anywhere, could affect any of our activities at any time. Therefore any intrusions on privacy, police questioning or orders to turn over information can be passed off as a countermeasure to terrorism.
Frightened people do what they are told.
Maybe it’s actually getting worse
It is always possible that the increase of bad news is because there really is more bad news. Consider some large-scale truths about the United States and its historical arc over the past 50 years: vastly increased concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, the evaporation of blue-collar jobs that would support a middle-class life, the destruction of millions of Americans’ pensions. Add to that a breakdown of various forms of social restraint and decorum in favor of informality and self-expression.
It isn’t all bad: few would want to go back 50 years to when Blacks couldn’t vote, racist language was publicly acceptable, women couldn’t have careers, violence against women was thought mostly to be a myth (or worse, justified), homosexual leanings were considered a disease and the disabled often found it near-impossible to move about our cities.
So while there has been considerable progress, when the dust settles, it does seem unarguable that something has gotten worse. Our future has constricted. Be it our political liberties or our personal finances, fewer and fewer of us think the future is one of ease and plenty. Few assume our children will have it easier than we did. Both partners in marriages now work — not just because women are breaking barriers but because a household can no longer be supported otherwise.
The financial system blew up in 2008, it didn’t exactly get fixed, and the aftershocks keep coming. Trillions — literally, trillions — were spent on post-9/11 wars and we have basically nothing to show for it except a deteriorating infrastructure of bridges, schools, sewers and electric power grids we can’t afford to repair.
The rhetoric of American greatness continues; no politician would dare suggest that other countries had better health care, taller buildings, faster passenger trains or more astute ways of keeping everyone safe.
Day in and day out, the steady drip of bad news make us wonder if that rhetoric doesn’t ring hollow.