The Peristaltic Testator (peristaltor) wrote,
The Peristaltic Testator

Formatting Fear

Radio Lab just did a great recap of Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds" broadcast, the radio event that not only led to mass panic across the United States, but has been duplicated twice more to similar disastrous effect. What got me? Near the end of the show, media professor Jason Loviglio remarks on radio newscasts done well, as Edward R. Murrow did them during the London Blitz:

He's giving us the story of an unfolding emergency. . . but his mastery of information, his mastery of his own voice, his bravery on the scene . . . . This was the beginning of the formatting of fear, the formatting of crisis. . . sort of a ritual, evoking a terrible danger and then, some how, assuaging those fears through the performance of the news. And so people go to the news not to be afraid, but to be afraid and then to be reassured.

Welles, by contrast, took the radio news flash format and turned it on its ear, destroying the reassurance and spreading panic. In part, he did this (by his own admission in 1955) to force people to question what they are being told. Has anyone listened? Well, it seems the wrong people listened. Krulwich notes:

The War of the Worlds . . . was so good at grabbing an audience and sucking them in, that the Welles formula, you might call it, the newscast that scares you enough to keep you listening has been adopted by, of all folks, news companies. . . . So many newscasts tease you with things that aren't quite true . . . . Even if the headline is slightly preposterous, even if it is slightly scary, even if it is slightly false, we will listen.

Loviglio agrees:

The fear that these broadcasts generate now suck us in. . . . You'd think that 70 years later, we'd be more sophisticated and critical when the local newscaster tells us that there's something we're feeding our children that could kill them and they'll tell us after the news, I still listen. . . . I'm a media critic, and I still wait through the commercials to see what is it that I'm doing to kill my child. . . . Somehow, it gets me every time. (Emphasis mine.)

". . . I still wait through the commercials. . . ." Loviglio nails the reason a vast majority of today's commercial news broadcasts have gotten so misleading, so bloody, so shrill. Commercial news exists not to inform, not to develop the educated populace Thomas Jefferson noted proved so necessary to democracy, but to package and sell commercial spaces.

That. Is. All.
Tags: culture of whores, swarms & brains, tilting at the ad mill
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