Fear in America

Hyping Fear Is an Economic Engine of the News Business, and We All Pay the Price

If Bill O’Reilly’s lies bother you, his fear-mongering should really scare you.

The following is the latest in a new series of articles on AlterNet called Fear in America that launched this March. Read the introduction to the series.

Much has been made in the last few weeks of the factual nature of the news. Amidst allegations that NBC News anchor Brian Williams was less than accurate in claims about his experiences in Iraq, we now have an emerging controversy over the repeated lies of Bill O’Reilly. But the real story here is not just the decline of truth telling in television news, it’s the way that the truth has been replaced by fear.

Rather than offer viewers accurate information, TV news increasingly depends on developing a fearful audience. As Psychology Today notes, “Fear-based news stories prey on the anxieties we all have and then hold us hostage.” O’Reilly, for instance, tells viewers that they have much to fear, that the world is filled with evil, and then offers personal stories that suggest he has unique insights into the way that violence operates in the world. Again, to quote Psychology Today, “[t]he success of fear-based news relies on presenting dramatic anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, promoting isolated events as trends, depicting categories of people as dangerous and replacing optimism with fatalistic thinking.”

Most of us have heard the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads,” but it’s worth asking when we simply started to take it for granted. In fact, the phrase was originally a reference to local TV news – a tacit criticism of the way local news programs used hype and sensationalism to attract viewers since they lacked the serious reporting of network news. In the early 1980s, just as media critics began noting that local news was turning toward even greater fear-based reporting, CNN was founded. The advent of the 24/7 news channel radically altered the kind of information offered to television news audiences.

Put simply, there wasn’t enough “real” news to sustain a 24-hour cycle. So cable news relied on two things to fill the hours: time spent hyping future stories and pundit reviews of news items. Both of these changes depended more on fear than facts to keep viewers tuned in. Anchors babbled on about worrying news stories, then pundits hyped them up with hysteria.  

But that was just the beginning. The fear era of news was about to get much worse. In 1996, Roger Ailes founded the Fox News Channel. The station was the first explicitly conservative TV news network and its mission was to offer a partisan spin on the news. The Fox News angle was more than just a conservative take on the news. It was fear-based programming that far outpaced anything, in terms of scaremongering, that had been on television prior. Fox didn’t just shun the facts as liberal bias, it also taught viewers to be afraid. Particularly of anyone who disagreed with their extreme right views.

This is why Eric Burns, who hosted Fox’s media critic show Fox News Watch for a decade, recently explained in an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter that Fox News is more like a cult than an actual news channel. He pointed out that O’Reilly’s lies had been well documented since Keith Olbermann went after him when he hosted a show for MSNBC. But no one cared, Burns said, because for Fox News viewers consider anything that contradicts the fear and hype they consume as liberals propaganda. There simply are not enough facts to change their minds since the only thing they trust is Fox News. “To the Fox News cult, this kind of thing doesn’t matter,” said Burns. “It’s a lie from the liberal media.”

This leads to another key piece of the story. During the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Tim Russert introduced the concept of “red states and blue states” on the Today show. While colors had been used to code states in election reporting before, this new scheme took hold and began to depict a nation that was deeply divided and fundamentally at odds. Color-coding created a sense of opposition where news media depended on pitting citizens of different political perspectives against each other in battle.

This might all have seemed like a standard pattern for reporting on elections if it hadn’t soon been followed by 9/11. The news coverage of the World Trade Center attacks again relied on fear, but a new and highly specific form of fear. One that encouraged viewers to feel their beliefs were at risk, and that they were under constant attack from an enemy hell-bent on destroying us.

This reporting led to repeated cries of “Why do they hate us?” – certainly not a line of questioning designed to advance our critical perspectives of the situation. After 9/11, the emotional hype that had begun to gain traction in news hit all-new peaks as the Bush administration also began trading in fear to advance its political agenda. It would take satirical comedian Stephen Colbert (more on him later) to call out the weaknesses of this line of thinking when, on his first show, he coined the term “truthiness“ to describe replacing reality with hyperbolic sentiment.

Thus, in the period following 9/11, detail, information, and nuance gave way to ever-increasing amounts of news sensationalism. While all TV news sometimes falls prey to this line of reporting, there is little doubt that Fox News is #1. Recall, for example, recent Fox and Friends reporting on Muslim “no-go” zones in France following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. When a French TV host sent his own reporters out to “these supposedly dangerous areas, [they found]…well…nothing terribly threatening.”

The trouble with this kind of fear-based reporting – other than its aversion to facts – is that it shuts down reason and replaces it with anxiety. As we read in the piece that launched this series, “fear is the enemy of reason.” Citizens simply can’t make reasoned judgments if all the news they consume is hysterical hyperbole.

This brings us back to the connection between O’Reilly and Williams and their respective lies. It seems clear that both hyped up their personal experiences to advance their careers. But O’Reilly had additional motive: building up his cult of fear. He is the Papa Bear, to use Colbert’s nickname for him, who will protect his viewers and attack his critics. According to NPR’s David Folkenflik, “O'Reilly wants to be respected and feared, while Williams wants to be respected and loved.” He explains that O’Reilly is a “human invective machine” and that his “defense of his journalism consists of going on the offensive.”

What makes O’Reilly’s particular brand of fear mongering especially dangerous is that it combines fear with intense aggression. It is not a fear meant to unite our nation under a common cause, it is a fear meant to create factions at war. The motto seems to be: “Forget the facts, but always remember your enemies.”

One of the few sources of a corrective to this fear mongering has been satirical news such as that offered by shows like the recently ended Colbert Report, where the aforementioned Stephen Colbert played a parody of a pundit based on O’Reilly. In fact, we can thank satirists like Colbert and Jon Stewart for offering Americans a healthy alternative to Fox News hype. Somewhere along the way, satirical news became more trustworthy than news calling itself “fair and balanced”.

On the last week of his show, Colbert discussed how O’Reilly was dismissing the findings of “The Torture Report,” since the facts in the report didn’t support his worldview. In a final segment of “Formidable Opponent," in which the "real" Stephen Colbert debates the parody Colbert, the two Colberts watched a clip of the Fox News host defending the use of torture as a way to protect Americans. 

It was in the midst of this segment that Colbert dropped a real zinger:

"Oh, I am going to miss that good man," Colbert says after watching the clip.

"Stephen, he's not going off the air," the other Colbert replies. "You are!"

"Yeah," says Colbert. "But no one’s going to pay me to watch him anymore, so fuck that noise!"

Colbert may not be being paid to watch O’Reilly anymore, but it seems clear that we all need to pay attention to his show and the impact it has on public perceptions. It all makes the original use of “if it bleeds, it leads” seem really quite quaint. Today’s TV news media has amped up the fear factor of news to a whole new level. One where fear is taken for granted, and reason is ridiculed.

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Sophia A. McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics. Follow her on Twitter at @mcclennen65.