Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Best Media Scare That Turned Out To Be Not That Big Of A Deal.

It's been a long time since we had a good media scare, a long time since the reporters and anchors and newspapers and even magazines, which are still around (there's today's Fun Fact: Did you know that people still read magazines? It's true!) got all whipped up into a froth about something that turned out to be, in the end, really nothing at all.

Looking back at the first 2/3 of 2008, what've we got so far? Airplanes held together by duct tape? Yawn. Chinese pollution? Big deal; because of the international date line, China exists in the future so we'll worry about that when it arrives. Forest fires? The Little League world series got higher ratings. Rainbow parties? I saw that one as a fake the moment I heard about it. (Apparently, there are two ways to make a lot of money as a writer these days: write stories that teenage girls but nobody else love; or write stories about teenage girls thinking they're in love.)

We are a long, long way from the great media scares of the past. Those had everything. They had celebrities and common place items and horrified parents who were only to glad to hand their jobs off to the government, and even the end of the world. What could be more fake-scary than that? These modern-day overhyped media scares just don't measure up, and television -- and life -- is the more boring for it.

Because what good is living if it isn't done in the shadow of the cloud of fear? What good is having children if we can't worry that forces beyond our control, or at least forces that we're too lazy to try to control, are wrecking our kids and dooming them to lives of sloth and degeneracy? How can we taste of the sweet and spicy nectar of life if the salty and sour rind of terror is not also on our plate?

Okay, I'm sorry. That was really the worst metaphor ever and it should be removed from this blog. It should be buried in one of those caves where the government is sticking nuclear waste in barrels that aren't tightly closed so that the waste is leeching down into the groundwater, spreading out through the aquifer and eventually going to damage all of our chromosomes so badly that we'll end up being extras in one of those SciFi channel movies.

Not scared? Sorry. I tried. Maybe I should have instead used subliminal advertising, just like networks are doing to get you to watch their shows, slowly eroding your will...

Apparently, it's not that easy to whip up a fake media scare. So I've gone over great media scares of the past (en route to choosing The Best one) to determine just what made them so great, and doing that has allowed me to discern what it takes to make a great fake media scare. So, to help me out in creating one (and to keep me from being tempted to try to create more metaphors), and to help others out -- Katie Couric, this could be just the ticket you need to stay on the job--

Katie Couric is still on the job, right? Does anyone watch CBS? Nobody? Okay. Well, Katie Couric, if you're still on the job, then this is just the ticket for you to keep your job. If you're still on the job, how about going freelance and whipping up a media scare using these Guidelines for Whipping Up A Media Scare:

1. It's got to involve an everyday object that we otherwise would not fear. This is something that fake media scares share with urban legends, and is probably the most important thing. China, California, teenage girls: these are not everyday objects that most of us run into in our lives and so we're not scared by things that they do or that happen to them. Cactuses, apples, bees -- these are things that are all around us and affect our everyday lives. So the scorpions in the cactus becomes a great urban legend; they sell those things at Wal-Mart, for Pete's sake! "Alar" in apples -- that was a great one because everyone knows what an apple is; it's a part of our culture: apples for the teacher, "an apple a day," apple pie. So if our apples are being poisoned, that hits us where it hurts.

Or take killer bees: that was genius. Bees already hurt when they sting us, and we're all secretly terrified of bees even though it only hurts for, like, an hour. But make bees be killer bees, and then we've got a reason to be scared of them and act like ninnies when a bee comes near us, jumping up and spilling our potato salad onto the lawn and running around waving our arms*

*this is not based on anyone's real behavior.

and saying "Bee! Bee!".

That, then, brings up the second guideline (take this down, Katie.)

2. It's got to try to get us to do what we wanted to do anyway. The closest we've come to a big media scare in the past couple of years was the news that spinach was killing people. That wasn't a big media scare after all, because who eats spinach? Nobody. Nobody really eats spinach. It's disgusting. It might have been scary if spinach was actually killing people -- going around all stringy and slimy and wet and choking people in their sleep (which will probably be the plot of The Happening 2: Happenin' Boogaloo) but as it was, the spinach scare affected nobody because nobody eats spinach.

Apples, poisonous apples, were a different story, because they are a cute, okay tasting fruit that we would eat if we ever actually ate fruit. We don't eat fruit, though. We say we want to eat fruit, but we don't; BBQ Fritos, according to one source (me) outsell apples by a ratio of 300,000,000 to 1. Don't believe me? When was the last time you went into a store and saw that they were out of apples? Never. They're never out of apples. But they run out of BBQ Fritos all the time.

We eat apples, or other fruit, as a general rule only on two occasions: when we're starting a new diet, so we put away the BBQ Fritos and eat an apple, or when we're trying to convince our kids that fruit can be every bit as good as a potato chip, so we eat an apple and they scoff and go off to play video games that we can't master.

That's why a scare involving apples or similar fruit is genius. It lets us say Did you hear Tom Brokaw say that the president of France was nearly poisoned by an apple? I'd like to have one, but I can't risk it. Pass the BBQ Fritos, please.

The mention of teenagers brings up the next point, which is:

3. It has to apply to someone else, and preferably to our kids. Changing our behavior is both hard and unnecessary; we're perfect as is, maybe we could drop a few pounds, but who can eat healthy with all the poisoned apples, so really, we're okay.

But other people? They need a lot of help. I'm looking at you -- and you're looking at me. We all know what's best for everyone else, and a media scare that lets us change others is perfect for our need to make others as perfect (well, almost as perfect) as we are.

Teenagers are the best target for this, especially other people's teenagers. That's why some of the greatest media scares have involved all the damage that is being done to teenagers (or even younger kids) by other people or other people's kids.

Rock music and videogames, especially, are popular targets, because adults don't like kids' rock music or videogames. I say that as an adult (?) who grew up with rock music and videogames: I don't like my kids' rock music and videogames. My stuff is cool; they're stuff is... well, I don't like it, so I'll just say that their stuff encourages drug use or violence or Satanic impulses or antisocial behavior.

The Matrix? Cool movie to the younger half of the population; hypnotic-irresistable-order-to-kill to the older generation, which was more comfortable with "action" that involved John Wayne sitting behind a rock popping the trigger on a six-shooter while Injuns fell off horses, sometimes even before the gunshot sounded. Grand Theft Auto? If I could play it, I'd love it. But I can't master it, so it's obviously going to teach my kids how to be gang members and needs to be banned, even though the odds of my kids becoming gang members are incredibly slim, because there simply aren't that many gangs in the suburbs of Wisconsin; with Grand Theft Auto around, my kids will inevitably become part of a gang and the Babies! toy room will end up as a crack den.

Remember, though, when applying the next big scare to our kids, don't make it about something embarrasing or gross, like their sex lives. There's no way we're talking to them about that.

Applying media scares to our kids has the added benefit of dovetailing into the next guideline, which is:

4. It has to make my life easier, not harder. Media scares in recent memory have tried to whip up a frenzy about something, but have done so in a way that makes life more difficult. Sure, I'd like to want to try to help save the environment, but that means I've got to put my soda can there instead of here, and there is almost 2 feet away and would also require that I haul two different containers to the curb each week, so... pass the BBQ Fritos. Carbon footprint? Help me reduce mine... but I don't have time to plant a tree, and I'm not supposed to be digging in the yard without calling that hotline.

Those are terrible media scares. A good media scare requires absolutely no effort on the part of anyone, and promises to reduce my workload. Are they showing too much smut on network TV? They are!? Ban it all! I don't have the time or energy to sit in the same room as my kids while they're watching TV. Predators on MySpace? Get rid of the Internet, or at least the part the kids like, because that is the only possible way to keep my kids from going on MySpace. I mean, I know I could put the computer down in the kitchen, but then they're always underfoot, and they complain a lot, so, really, it'd be easier if the government would just do something about all of this stuff.

That's why SARS and all those flus were also such good scares: they allowed us to be scared but we didn't have to actually do anything about it. Do you know how many people have died of SARS in the US to date? It must be a lot, right, because the Centers for Disease Control --

-- why is it the Centers for Disease Control? It's only one organization, and also, there can only be one center of something--

the CDC says SARS was recognized as a global threat all the way back in 2003. Of course, the CDC also says that the global outbreak was... um... over by July, 2003, too. And in the U.S., a grand total of zero people died. Only 8 people in the U.S. even caught it. That's about 0.00000002 % of the population. In 2003, you had about the same chance, if you lived in the U.S., of catching SARS or winning the Powerball.

That didn't keep everyone from being scared and wanting those facemasks and vowing not to travel to China, ever (until we did just that, this year, to watch the Olympics, forgetting all about SARS) and demanding that the government quarantine... people who might have SARS, which included both Asians and Canadians, as I recall-- which explains why Tommy Chong was so absent in 2003.

The demand for government help brings up the final guideline, which is:

5. There must be a governmental solution -- or the threat of one-- to all of this. This one is pretty much the sum total of all the others, but it's also the most important. Doing what we were going to do anyway, using everyday things, applying it to other people, making life easier -- that's the role of the government in a nutshell, right? I mean, it's been a long time since I read the Constitution, but I'm pretty sure the Founding Fathers meant for the government to make it easier for me to watch TV and eat my BBQ Fritos.

A governmental solution means that we get to fret about stuff, make rules that apply to other people, and then let other people carry out the enforcement of those rules. If we don't want to do the hard work of parenting in the first place, why would we want to do the hard work of enforcing government rules about parenting? And I'd rather not have to wash that apple I'm going to eat when I start my diet tomorrow, so could we just ban the use of anything that might get on it that I would have to wash off? I'm not made of time, you know.

Sometimes, a governmental solution alone is almost enough to whip up a fake media scare -- like with the baseball-steroids issue, an issue that affected approximately 10 people in the United States, and we could tell who the affected ones because they had large heads and/or repeatedly denied sleeping with teenage country singers. That lack of impact on everyone's lives did not in any way hamper a giant governmental investigation into those 10 guys -- two of them, in fact -- and that investigation almost singlehandedly incited an entire media scare, as the media tried to turn this back on us by asking whether we, or our kids, or our dogs or our racehorses were using steroids. (Ultimately, the fledgling scare died out for two reason: nobody really cares what Roger Clemens does, and we couldn't tell if our kids/us/racehorses were on them, because we as a nation are not exactly sure what "steroids" are. I myself picture them as an adult-y version of Flintstones vitamins.)

But a governmental solution is an essential element of any good media scare -- rock music would not have been exposed as the tool of the devil that it is if not for Tipper Gore's efforts generating a congressional investigation. After all, rock music had been around corrupting kids since the 1950s, and while parents always suspected it was harmful, they never did anything about it until Congress got involved, at which point we had warning labels and there was never any harmful or terrible or sexually suggestive rock music again:

If you want your media scare to be even bigger, try to make it something that the government created in the first place, like Skylab. That adds to our healthy distrust of government while creating what we all think is a nice ironic twist: the government made this mess, now let it clean it up.

That's not actually ironic, though. We think it is, but it's not.

With all that in mind, it's time, then, to name The Best Media Scare That Turned Out To Be Not That Big Of A Deal. And that is...


It was a good run for Communism, wasn't it? The Bolshevik Revolution, the USSR, blacklisting, Tailgunner Joe, the nuclear arms race, kids ducking under desks, Ich bin ein Berliner, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall, "Star Wars" for real...

... I'm kind of sounding like that Billy Joel song, aren't I...

for decades, the media managed to whip up a fear of communism that was never before and has not since been matched by any other fake media scare that ever existed. "Communism" -- a political philosophy which has never actually been fully implemented in any country or society or even commune ever anywhere in the history of the world -- has been responsible for destroying careers, nuclear silos proliferating across middle America, and at least two full-on wars.

Communism hit all the marks. It involved everyday objects: us. What if suddenly we were to be part of a society where everybody wasn't free to make a billion dollars and buy crappy endtables as a means of demonstrating that we're going to use our money to serve our own needs rather than actually rebuild New Orleans?

It gets us to do what we were going to do anyway: Because of "Communism" we feared sending our kids to college, lest they be turned into communists by those commie professors-- so we didn't have to save for a college fund. Communism was an excuse for a military buildup and invading countries left and right and deposing elected officials in favor of the people we liked; since "Communism" faded away, we've had to make up stuff like "Yellow Cake Uranium" to invade a country and we've had to live with guys like whoever is leading China now.

It applies to someone else, and especially our kids -- that college thing, right, plus all those foreigners and Cubans and French people. Did you know there are communists in the French Government? Let's hate them.

It makes our life lots easier. Why am I not getting ahead in life? Communists. Why am I not taking you kids on a trip to Cuba? Communists. Why do I as a President need to have a secret "black budget" item that will turn out to be M/X missiles and also to have Ollie North running his own little government? Communists. Plus, we then could live with the occasional "glitch" in our society, like the Great Depression or the S&L Bailout or the Mortgage Meltdown or the fact that Tom Cruise can spend $200,000 on a 2-year-old's birthday party, by saying sure, those are problems indicative of flaws in a purely capitalist system, but, what, do you want to be a Commie? Rather than changing society, or reviling Tom Cruise, we just say and chortle about how great it is that in our society, Leona Helmsley can leave millions to her dog and Bill Gates can own an island.

And, there is of course a governmental solution to Communism, one that "worked" in the sense that it defeated a foe that was never actually there and to the extent it existed would have crippled itself anyway; our government fought the Cold War -- a War that was Cold! For decades, we had Cuban Missile Crises and U2 planes shot down and shoe-banging and deficit spending because the government had to do something about communism. If it didn't do something, we might someday live in a world where "celebrities" were not free to spend time in a $10,000-per-night hotel room.

I'm getting a little choked up, here. It's just not the same without these great fake media scares of the past. I just can't find a reason to hate my neighbor, not leave the country, or wear 50-SPF-sunscreen in January without a good media scare. So, Katie, hoist yourself up by your strappy sandals and get on this; whip us up a scare to match Communism, The Best Media Scare That Turned Out To Be Not That Big Of A Deal.

Click here to see all the other topics I’ve ever discussed!


My first book of essays is out! Click here to buy Thinking The Lions, And 117* Other Ways To Look At Life (*Give Or Take)

Or, click here to find out how you can win a free copy!

Thinking The Lions is the only website where you can find out why Velociraptors are fake, learn how to play "Cloverfield," and otherwise follow the hilarious adventures of a guy with a lot of kids, a lot of love of 70s music, a lot of time to watch Battlestar Galactica, and a very patient wife. Life, only funnier.

No comments: