America’s Fear Channel

With the announcement late last week of the heightened terror alert, cable news channels scratched their collective head trying to come up with a way to scare us even more. Thank goodness the brainstorming didn’t last too long. By this weekend, the three major cable news outlets (CNN, Fox News and MSNBC) all posted new and intrusive graphics above the now permanent crawl reading, “TERROR ALERT: HIGH,” so that anyone casually flipping channels in between “Blind Date” and “The Fifth Wheel” might give pause to hug their knees to their chest and say their prayers.

And that is precisely the reason these yellow and red boxes have intruded further into the screen -- to get the satellite owner or cable subscriber to stop flipping the channels and consume the product they’re selling. Just like every other corporate channel on television, cable news outlets have products to sell. And, following the lead of other channels looking to gain a large audience, cable news has harnessed its hopes on “Reality TV.” But instead of the reality being “out there” -- with fake millionaires or pompous British record execs -- cable news has capitalized on the reality of your fear.

To help foster this fear, these channels have taken debate and discussion out of the news about impending war. In the rush to have the best graphic, forgone conclusions work better than democracy. CNN has categorized news about Iraq as “SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ,” the word “showdown” in bold black letters, red and yellow rising from the bottom like it’s on fire. Fox has dismissed with the notion of a Wild West gunfight altogether, and called the impending conflict precisely what it is -- “TARGET IRAQ.” MSNBC varies between the two with “SHOWDOWN WITH SADDAM” (so as not to completely steal from CNN), and “COUNTDOWN: IRAQ.” The purpose of these graphics, like the new terror alert box, isn’t to inform, but to scare. For the average viewer watching cable news, the decision to go to war has already been made. The interruptions of France and Germany are like commercials -- you just have to sit through them to get on with the program.

The ubiquitous crawl, in place ever since it made what most television audiences thought was a temporary appearance in the aftermath of 911, is no longer a vehicle for breaking news, but has become the type of headline catching infotainment that keeps cable news afloat. In between short, stocky sentences about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, the viewer can find the latest news on Laci Peterson (there IS no news), or the heart-breaking news that the Dell computer guy has been arrested on drug charges (Dude! You’re getting busted!). So that the viewer, tired of watching the bowtied Tucker Carlson, doesn’t have to change the channel to get their fill of entertainment and water-cooler gossip.

Watching cable news is increasingly frustrating for the informed citizen. Senate debates about war are consolidated into fifteen-second clips of a heated argument, without the benefit of the discussion’s dynamics, repercussions, or conclusion. Cable news producers have taken a lesson from Jerry Springer -- it doesn’t matter why those people on TV are fighting, what matters is that we’ll stick around to watch the fight.

In Michael Moore’s film "Bowling for Columbine," Marilyn Manson makes an insightful comment about the status of American life by saying that we’re trapped in a cycle of “fear and consumption.” With the increasing competition of cable news channels, sensationalism and fear-mongering have taken the place of informing citizens and sparking debate. Media consolidation has caused profit margins and advertisers to control the news we consume and the ways we consume it. For most American informed by TV news, the war in Iraq is a foregone conclusion, and has been since Bush first announced his renewed animosity for Saddam. Manson is right. We’ve been pushed into fear about the world, and, as of earlier this week, we’ve even been told precisely what we need to consume right now.

So head to your local Wal-Mart. I hear they’re running low on flashlights and Duct tape. Don’t worry about missing anything on TV -- it’ll all be there crawling and intruding when you get back.

Andrew Beck Grace is a freelance writer from Alabama, who currently lives and works in Laramie, Wyoming.

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