When did being terrified of everything stop being cause for embarrassment and start being a point of pride? I'd say since cold analysis became somehow less respectable in many people's minds than gut feelings. Former Ladies Home Journal editor Myrna Blyth describes the phenomenon well in her new book Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberalism to the Women of America. Blyth cites cover after cover of what she calls "female fear factor" stories -- from Family Circle's "Attack of the Killer Cleansers" to Cosmopolitan's "sleepsex" rapists. (Don't you hate it when your boyfriend rapes you without even waking up?)
But this quaking, breathless attitude has seeped beyond the world of women's media. Journalists used to be embarrassed at not being able to analyze statistics or even understand basic science; but again, no longer. The feminization (and psycho-therapization) of American culture so influences the newsroom now that gut feelings are too often treated with the respect of hard facts.
Ignorant media people irritate me more than ignorant regular people because not only do they have easier access to information (and therefore no excuse), they can be a big part of the problem in the first place - spreading misinformation because they're too lazy and complacent to bother educating themselves. Or for ratings. Or just because they can.
The most stupid editor I ever had lunch with, for instance, once told me she was changing plans to fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco because of bad weather. She was still going to go, but by car. Now the facts are plain that the drive home from the airport is more hazardous than the entire preceding flight, never mind a 500-mile trip up the highway, in the pouring rain, on unfamiliar terrain. (She was visiting here from New York.)
"You just hear so much about plane crashes when the weather's bad," she sighed, in the helpless but stubborn tones of the truly dull.
I'm happy to say though, that a small army of skeptics has begun attacking media fear factor hype recently. The latest volley comes from the magicians Penn & Teller, whose Penn & Teller: Bullshit! just returned to Showtime this month for its second season. (New episodes premiere Thursday nights at 10, with repeats throughout the week.)
"I think the media spends a lot of time fooling itself," said Penn Jillette, when I asked about this at the Showtime news conference. Sometimes funny, sometimes just obnoxious, the show is an in-your-face antidote to media scare stories.
"They put out this garbage, and then people watch it because there's nothing else on, and they think they're being believed," Jillette continued. "I think most of America is laughing at the media putting out homeopathy and alien abductions and John Edwards talking to the dead. Which, incidentally, of course you can talk to the dead; they just can't talk back."
Penn & Teller understand better than most the power of misdirection from reality. As magicians, they use it to earn a living, although what makes their act different is that they also deconstruct it.
"We believe there's an objective reality," Teller said. Jillette added that he's never gotten past an adolescent obsession with the truth. "You're supposed to outgrow that by the time you're 18," he noted, "I just haven't reached that stage."
Then there's the problem of scientific illiteracy. Physicist and professional debunker Robert L. Park points out in his book Voodoo Science (which I think should be required reading for journalists) that the media feel no embarrassment about this.
It's true; over the years I've heard colleagues say all sorts of scientifically illiterate things. That hyenas are members of the dog family, for instance, or that one of every eight women you happen to know will get breast cancer. (This one came from a conversation with a Los Angeles Times writer, who backed down a bit when I asked if she also thought a coin landing heads-up must therefore land tails-up on the next toss.)
The most pervasive unscientific assumptions deal with that well-traveled media intersection where pop culture meets public policy. Journalists are typically nervous about the un-p.c. idea that masculine and feminine behavior have any basis in biology, for instance. No, no, they insist; it's the culture. So are stallions rarely used as riding horses because the mares get their more docile nature from leafing through "How To Please a Man" articles in Cosmopolitan? (And maybe geldings subscribe to, I don't know, Eunuch Living.)
TV news shows often let any old fool have his say as long as it boosts ratings. Thus Park points out Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News, for instance, soberly introducing a segment about "a backyard tinkerer" who's built a perpetual motion machine, "and you know, some people think that just maybe he has."
Little guys who defy pointyhead experts are regularly wheeled out from the media's dusty prop closet of cliched characters, and never mind that the pointyheads are usually right. The first and second laws of thermodynamics mean that perpetual motion machines are impossible.
"It seems to me that people want two things: one, to live forever; and two, to do no work," Park told me in a phone conversation from his Washington, D.C. office.
Park meticulously deconstructs the absurdity of homeopathy with his explanation that standard homeopathic dilution formulas of 30C - one part medicine to one-followed-by-60-zeroes parts water - are based on an assumption of "more molecules than there are in the entire solar system." Homeopathic solutions contain not one molecule of active ingredient.
Pointing out this sort of thing can get you called an old meanie, as John Stossel, author of the new book Give Me A Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media, knows. Stossel's now riding high as co-anchor of ABC's 20/20, but his wet-blankety attitude isn't always welcomed in TV news, and for years he had to fight to get his segments on the air.
Years ago a producer rushed into Stossel's office excitedly announcing, "Bic lighters are killing four people a year!"
"I said, 'OK, I'll do your Bic lighters if you do garage openers first,'" recalled Stossel, who was visiting L.A. from New York to give a speech. "They kill 20 people a year. Or what about buckets? Or plastic bags? So the producer left my office, calling me callous, and another reporter did the story."
"For many years," he added, "I would beg and grovel and fight and they would reject nine out of 10 ideas. A turning point was the Wall Street Journal did a story on some breast-exam device approved in Canada but not in the U.S. Suddenly they were interested because it was someone else's idea. And also because it was breasts. I mean, this is television."