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Television news is here to sell you

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By Joseph Yates

What happened to summer? I looked at the paper the other day and school starts on August 7? Really?  It makes me recall how long summer seemed and how lazy and languid it could be. I remember zipping around New Castle as a child; adolescent posses on bicycles, hordes of kids literally running all around town. There was always something to do. Everywhere you looked back then, there seemed to be a throng of kids. And I don’t mean simply young‘uns outside in their yards playing catch. I’m talking leaving the house breathlessly in the morning, maybe checking in at lunchtime and exploring the world until dusk drove you in—all without much adult supervision. Can you imagine that happening today? What gives? Where’d the kids go?

Inside, I guess. Could it be all those video games? Maybe. Air conditioning? That might be a part of it. Let’s think a minute. Wait! It’s as plain as the nose on your face! Look around you. It’s everywhere! The abductions, the kidnappings, the murders! Where did the good ole days go?

But hold on — didn’t I hear somewhere that crime was actually down? Why yes, it’s true, now that I’ve bothered to look it up! Since the early 1990s the rate of violent crime in the United States has declined sharply (U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Jennifer L. Truman, Ph.D., and Michael Planty, Ph.D. October 2012). I have come to the conclusion that we have scared our children out of summer—and ourselves out of a whole lot more.  The truth is, things aren’t any worse now than they were a generation or so ago—and in this circumstance they are actually better. Real bad stuff happened back then, too. But today it is the media that makes us afraid by its purposeful distortion of reality.

The next time you grab the remote and plop down on the old Barcalounger at 6 p.m. to see what happened in your world that day, think twice. Your local TV news will enlighten you on very little that has any real significance to you. But you can count on the ‘scare-du-jour.’ The phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” may be overused, but personally, I’ve never found a truer yardstick. Just for kicks, kids, please try this at home.

See the flashing lights. See the abandoned, burnt-out liquor store in the background — and how the cameraman gets a neat shot of the bloodstain on the brick wall. See the mother of the victim wail about what a good boy he was and how “he never really meant to hurt nobody.” As she wipes her tears, and while folks out there are still watching, we go to the Kleenex commercial. See how it works? Downton Abbey may not scare us, but this stuff does — and we not only stay tuned, we come back for more night after night.

“The suspect is described as a black male about six feet tall…possibly armed.” Those few words, blaring from our televisions and repeated over and over in various permutations — but always keeping the coded message intact — have cleared more children from the streets of small town America than any video game ever thought about.

Like much that occurs in this modern era, the manipulation of irrational fear is a function of economics. Television stations must make a profit for their owners. They sell advertising to make money. If more people watch these commercials, the more money they make.

Neil Postman and Steve Powers, authors of a book titled ‘How To Watch TV News,’ have this to say: “Murders, rapes and fires are not the only way to assess the progress of a society. Why are there so few television stories about symphonies that have been composed, novels written, scientific problems solved, and a thousand other creative acts that occur during the course of a month?”

Look, I’m not saying that life isn’t sometimes dangerous. But don’t let cheesy local television news define the boundaries of your world. The purpose of TV news is not to inform you, but to make money.

We have a wonderful library in this community. It’s completely ad-free. Go use it.