Friday, April 3, 2009

Signals 19

Signals 19

There's a lot of fear in the country right now. Much of it makes sense. The future is uncertain. But some of the fear comes from the careless hyperbole of our news media. For example, on the night that I write this column (in late February), Brian Williams, the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, called the current economic crisis "the worst ever."

Now I'm not sure if he skipped a phrase from the TelePrompTer—"the worst ever in our lifetimes" or "the worst ever in the past twenty years"—but whatever he meant, what he said is completely incorrect.

There have been a lot of "economic downturns" in American history. Until regulations were put into place during the New Deal of the 1930s, Americans lived on a continual boom-and-bust cycle.

The busts were catastrophic: bank closures—not dozens as we've been experiencing—but in the thousands. Entire fortunes disappearing overnight, currency becoming worthless, property losing all of its value.

Such things happened regularly. In the 19th century, the decade to own the title of the Great Depression was the 1870s. And let's not even discuss what happened economically to the American South as a result of losing the Civil War.

The problem with our media's coverage of this current crisis is not just caused by the occasional mistaken phrase. Part of the problem is a lack of education among journalists. If some day trader tells them it's the worst crisis ever, the modern journalist doesn't know how to check that fact (and, with the 24-hour news cycle, might not have time to do so).

The other part of the problem is that many of the people covering this crisis are under forty. Most of them don't remember the recession of the early 1980s, let alone the horrible economic conditions of the early 1970s. For a lot of the journalists and talking heads, this is the worst crisis ever.

Ooops. Missing a phrase there. The worst crisis ever in their lifetime.

It colors how they report the news. The way they report the news colors how we react to it.

[cwg: this is a well written and insighful article. I recommend it.] Signals 19

No comments: