THE WARNING PAPER

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WHEN Hurricane Gustav failed to wipe New Orleans off the face of the earth once and for all last week, I got the sense the news media were kinda ticked off. Like, ‘OK, we played up this sucker and not much happened, so now we gotta find some new threat to dwell on.’

This “day after” was not the kind of “Day After” the media enjoy. The front page of my old paper, The Hartford Courant (which seems to be on the verge of being wiped off the face of the earth itself), had a blaring, “war-is-declared”-size headline that alerted everyone that New Orleans’ levees held! Somehow I get the sense that that’s not the story of catastrophe the media were hoping for, after days of tracking Gustav’s path of destruction and practically salivating over the possibility of a Katrina: Part II. (Just a couple days ago, the New York Times published a piece headlined “Gustav Was No Katrina, but Next Time …” Ah, newspapers love those ominous ellipses.)

The same thing happened with Y2K (remember that phantom shitstorm?) After years — yes, years — of dire warnings in the media, nothing happened as our clocks ticked from 1999 to 2000. No planes falling from the sky, no bank collapses, no water shortages, no riots in the streets, no two thousand zero zero party over oops out of time. (The lack of disaster pissed off the Courant’s editor at the time, I was told.)

The media hate when bullets are dodged, because it makes it that much harder to scare readers and viewers the next time doom and gloom loom. Years ago, newspapers stopped being “papers of record” and became fortune tellers, predicting events rather than recording them for posterity. Because papers rarely break stories any more in this world of round-the-clock cable news, they like to focus on what could happen. And if that just so happens to scare the shit out of us, all the better.

Which is why no strong breeze in the Caribbean goes unnoticed, why no case of bird flu or West Nile virus goes unreported, why no snippet of al-Qaida footage goes unplayed. They’re all threats! They could kill us all! We need to buy duct tape! It’s a story we can’t afford to miss!

Unfortunately for us, though, disasters are rarely foreseen (Nostradamus notwithstanding). Katrina, 9/11, earthquakes, the Minneapolis bridge collapse, the tsunami, the space shuttle explosions, the Virginia Tech shootings, wildfires, the “Speed Racer” movie — they all happened without warning.

Unfortunately for the news media, these true disasters happen too rarely — there’s a lot of time and space to fill up in the meantime, so they try to hold onto their audience with dire predictions of the next disaster. Which explains all the “could it happen here?” stories, all the “could we survive the big one?” stories. (Makes you wonder — how come they didn’t warn us about the disaster in Iraq?)

Yes, our news media are extremely valuable in times of real disaster — ironically, they can bring a sense of calm and community in the darkest of days. So then why must they scare us the rest of the time? I guess they figure that if they warn us about enough potential disasters, sooner or later they’ll be right.

I’m not holding my breath. Well, actually I am, but that’s only because I don’t want to get SARS.

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One Response to “THE WARNING PAPER”

  1. Yeah, and sometimes they have to re-create old stories just to put a fresh scare into people. Did you hear about this?:

    “A six-year-old article mistakenly seen by Bloomberg financial news users yesterday reported the bankruptcy of United Airlines and triggered a massive sell-off that nearly obliterated the company’s stock in a matter of minutes.”

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