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How Cable News Terrorizes America

Why tens of thousands of gun deaths a year can be taken in stride as "the price of freedom", while a single bombing prompts calls for the suspension of civil liberties.
 
 
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In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing and while a massive police manhunt continued for the suspected perpetrator, 19 year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, NBC journalist David Gregory would say to American television viewers: "This is a new state of terror the country has to get used to." Given the breathlessly hyperbolic coverage provided by NBC, CNN and many other cable news organisations during the search for Tsarnaev, it is by no means surprising to hear Gregory make such a comment. Whether in the context of entertainment or news media (a distinction which has been increasingly blurred by cable organisations) fear and hysteria always makes for  compelling if counter-informative viewing.

However, it nonetheless bears asking the question in response to Gregory's assertion: why should Americans - whose country possesses  the most powerful military in human history and who spend more on defence than the  next 13 countries combined - have to resign themselves to living in "a state of terror"? Can the actions of a disaffected teenage boy and his older brother, however heinous, be enough to terrorise a military superpower into paralysis and compel Americans to relinquish their  Constitutionally-enshrined rights and freedoms?

From the outset, the establishment media's coverage of the Boston bombing and its aftermath has been marked by a combination of hysteria and ineptitude. From the initial reports of police seeking a " dark-skinned male" to wholly erroneous and still-unexplained Day One reporting which claimed that  a suspect had actually been detained, the average viewer of Fox, CBS or MSNBC would arguably be far less informed from their coverage than they would have been by completely abstaining from television news during the crisis.

After several hours of reporting to their millions of credulous viewers important "facts" which later turned out to be little more than unsubstantiated rumours, CNN's Chris Cuomo would admit: "Ok. Now, that would be, you know, we don't know what's right or not at this point." One would hope for such forthcoming honesty from a major news organisation before the subsequent reporting of a major story instead of afterwards, but unfortunately the reverse proved to be true.

Media ratings

While the fast-paced reporting of rumours, hyperbole and innuendo serves very little to the cause of informing and enlightening the millions who rely on cable news for information, it undoubtedly does well at generating widespread fear and hysteria. This is less the result of a grand conspiracy than of simple market economics. Throughout the crisis,  ratings at major cable news stations surged - shooting up 194 percent from normal averages at CNN while also posting smaller yet still materially-significant gains at Fox News and MSNBC.

For an advertisement-driven industry where these ratings are the standard bearer of success and financial viability, the Boston bombings provided a major boost. In this light, the impetus to avoid salacious rumour-mongering and speculation - something which would inevitably trigger great fear in a viewing audience devoid of its own means of gauging events - markedly diminishes. Fear and uncertainty may be bad for the populace at large as well as for the functioning of a healthy democracy, but they are undeniably good at generating bigger and more lucrative audiences for news media. In an oligarchic media landscape where both barriers to entry and competitive pressure among existing players are high, cable news outlets have every reason to keep pumping up the hysteria if it means greater viewership. As their hyperbolic coverage of the Boston crisis has shown, they have little hesitance about doing this when the opportunity arises.

Being a victim in America

 
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