“We’re going to scare you to death.”
That’s not the advertising slogan for “Saw XVII.” It might well be the motto of modern journalism. “If it bleeds, it leads” has always been a news motto. Somewhere along the way, news went from public service announcement to slasher flick.
The latest example is the attack of the killer tomatoes. All three broadcast networks covered the deadly “salmonella scare” or “tomato scare” sweeping the nation. In all, we got 20 stories and briefs on three broadcast networks – nearly 34 minutes of gripping TV about the red menace.
The level of hype would have you thinking hundreds were dying. One person has died apparently because of complications related to the tomatoes, and he was already ill from cancer. Another 200 or so got sick. The number of those sickened is fewer than get killed by lightning each year. If you are afraid of the tomatoes in your salad, it makes about as much sense as running out and buying yourself a lightning rod. Ben Franklin would be so proud.
The media culture certainly encourages such paranoia. “Today” co-host Kathie Lee Gifford urged viewers on June 10 “just don’t eat some tomatoes for a couple of weeks until we figure this out.” Her broadcast teammate Hoda Kotb said health concerns make it “hard to eat anything.” Gifford went on to bemoan the previous spinach crisis and say even cheese could be questionable because “it could come from a mad cow.”
That over-the-top response explains the corporate overreaction to the red scare. According to Bloomberg, McDonald's Corp., Panera Bread Co. and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. all pulled tomatoes. I fell victim to this media-fed paranoia as even a local Mexican restaurant dropped Pico de Gallo from its menu.
Hit me with lightning; just spare me Pico-less tortillas.
The complications from this media hype would make you sick if you grew tomatoes for a living. Irresponsible journalism is crushing what USA Today describes as the “$2.7 billion fresh-tomato market” – already costing it millions of dollars. The story is “a disaster for tomato growers in Florida,” said CBS’s Kelly Cobiella.
Bloomberg said 37 percent of the people in a phone survey were “worried they or a family member might be sickened by” tomato-based salmonella. Nationwide, that 37 percent would equal more than 100 million people.
This is standard stuff for the evening hype operations run by all three networks. The avian flu scare hurt the poultry industry just two years ago. The U.S. nuclear industry has never recovered from media coverage. In fact, most industries must survive the media fear factor – food, energy, autos, airlines and more.
Lately, the media aren’t just throwing tomatoes to scare us. They are throwing everything but the kitchen sink. ABC is promoting its fall schlock-umentary about what the planet will be like in the future. “Earth 2100” claims it will tell us “what will our world be like over the next 100 years if we don’t act now to save our troubled planet.”
Working with left-wing activists, the network is warning people our civilization is poised to go the way of the Roman Empire and the Mayan civilization. The Web site promo for “Earth 2100” depicts “100 years from now when New York is abandoned.”
Of course it brought together the standard talking heads of climate doom – NASA’s James Hansen, the Weather Channel’s Heidi Cullen and more. These are people who make their livings off of disaster – either real or imagined.
ABC has a lot of imagination. This is the same network that brought us the fears of avian flu a couple years ago and Dr. Robert Webster, “the father of bird flu.” Webster predicted that the virus would mutate and “that 50 percent of the population could die.”
The network even produced the 2006 sweeps month movie “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America.” They were right about one thing. Bird flu is more deadly than salmonella. More than 240 people worldwide have died from avian flu, according to the World Health Organization. That’s still 240 out of 6.5 billion.
I’ll take those odds every day.
In fact, we all do. Almost everything we do, from eating to driving to taking a walk is potentially more deadly than our chances of dying from bird flu or bad tomatoes combined.
Our world has enough troubles to satisfy any prophet of doom. But we don’t need to escalate a crisis artificially just so somebody gets better ratings.
Dan Gainor is The Boone Pickens Fellow and vice president of the Media Research Center’s Business & Media Institute. He can be seen Friday afternoons each week on Fox Business Network.