Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A Culture of Anxiety and Fear Cannot Be Healthy

The media has been catching a lot of flack lately for a number of factual error and perceived bias. The NY Times and Washington Post are purely liberal; Fox News is strictly conservative. You've heard the shouts from both sides. I have been thinking a great deal about the way American media cover the news lately and its effect on our society. I believe, on both sides of the media circus, there is enough blame to go around. Specifically, blame for the American societies "culture of fear."

We have become a culture consumed by fear, dread, and self-loathing. And, for the most part, it is the food for thought we are fed by the media, liberal and conservative. We live our lives in fear. We fear terrorism. We fear serial homicidal maniacs. We fear gangs violence, road rage, rapists, child molesting priests, greenhouse gases and global warming. We are all inadequate and need fixing up (extreme make over, anyone?) What are we supposed to think about when that is all we have on the news? The more sensational and the more horrific the story, the more time and ink will be devoted to it. The familiar news phrase, "If it bleeds, it leads," has been supplanted with "If it smacks of impending doom, let's make lots of room!"

Exhibit A: the coverage of the Peterson trial recently. Undoubtedly, this was a heinous crime. But to devote hours of exhaustive analysis on Court TV as well as mainstream media was a prime example of what titillates our society's interest. Trust me, there would not be thousands of hours on a case of a husband killing his wife unless the media knew Americans would love watching it - and the advertising that bombards us while we do. The previously unknown Peterson is now one of the most famous faces in our country. Next up on the docket of horrific murders: Robert Blake. On deck for Murder TV: Mark Hacking.

Exhibit B: the proliferation of what I will call "Crime TV." We don't just have to wade through the horrors of real life, we also seem to enjoy a good fictional dismemberment as well. What are the ratings for "CSI" (Las Vegas, Miami, or New York flavor)? How's "Law & Order" doing after, what, 12 seasons? Not to mention, "Law & Order: SVU" which is about really, really vicious and horrific crimes. And if you are really looking for the end of life as we know it, there is "24" (with Keifer Sutherland), heading off plots to blow us all to kingdom come. Or, for those craving some really scarey drama, how about "Without a Trace" for fiction about people just disappearing off the face of the earth at the hands of some shadowy villain. And, finally, there is always "Cold Case" where we get to review a really monstrous crime that has been unsolved and is now reopened so we can review it again. And to round out our television crime festival, let's not forget "NCIS" (Naval Criminal Investigation Service") where we can see members of our armed forces commit and fall victim to crime. All, clearly are must see TV. Just so you don't think I am exaggerating, here are the Nielson Ratings for the week of November 29-December 5, 2004:

1. CSI CBS 9:00PM Thu 15.5 23.0 17,027,000
2. CSI: MIAMI CBS 10:00PM Mon 14.5 23.0 15,940,000
3. EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND CBS 9:00PM Mon 12.3 18.0 13,481,000
4. E.R. NBC 9:59PM Thu 12.0 20.0 13,176,000
5. SURVIVOR: VANUATU CBS 8:00PM Thu 11.7 18.0 12,788,000
6. WITHOUT A TRACE CBS 10:01PM Thu 11.7 19.0 12,874,000
7. TWO AND A HALF MEN CBS 9:31PM Mon 11.6 17.0 12,749,000
8. NFL MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL ABC 9:07PM Mon 11.5 18.0 12,585,000
9. ABC PREMIERE EVENT-12/5(S) ABC 8:00PM Sun 11.2 17.0 12,286,000
10. 60 MINUTES CBS 7:00PM Sun 10.8 17.0 11,792,000
11. APPRENTICE 2 NBC 9:00PM Thu 10.8 16.0 11,877,000
12. LOST ABC 8:00PM Wed 10.8 17.0 11,787,000
13. LAW AND ORDER:SVU NBC 10:00PM Tue 10.5 17.0 11,523,000
14. NCIS CBS 8:00PM Tue 10.3 16.0 11,235,000
15 LAW AND ORDER NBC 10:00PM Wed 10.2 16.0 11,142,000
16. CSI: NY CBS 10:01PM Wed 9.8 16.0 10,696,000
18. COLD CASE CBS 8:00PM Sun 9.1 13.0 9,963,000

Just in the interest of being "fair and balanced," I am pleased to report that "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was the 20th rated show for the week. By my count, 8 of the top 18 shows (remember, this is for the week that is presumably a "let's get into the Christmas Spirit!" week) are crime/gore/violence related drama. And, I do not include "60 Minutes" which is hardly know for uplifting stories of better times ahead and individual acts of kindness. At a time when "real" crime is declining significantly in our nation (see Bureau of Justice Statistics) , we seem to be longing for murder, rape, and torture to make a comeback.

So, what is the problem? It's sort of a chicken versus the egg conundrum. Do networks inundate us with horror, crime and violence because that is what we WANT to watch, or do we watch horror, crime and violence because that is what TV shows us? Whatever happened to "Little House on the Prarie?" Whatever happened to shows that were uplifting to the spirit or the mind?

Here is the point, finally, of this ranting: In my opinion, the constant bombardment of our minds - voluntarily (our fault) or involuntarily (the media's fault) - has led to our society which is living in a state of constant fear and anxiety. Continuing the argument, this chronic anxiety has led to a higher incidence of anxiety-related illnesses - specifically, hypertension, heart disease and mental illness, among others - in our society than in all of the other societies of the Western world. We currently have a life expectancy of a little over 77 years; that is less than England, Sweden, Switzerland, Singapore, Norway, New Zealand, Japan, Iceland, Italy, France, Canada and others [The data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau's International Data Bank]

I use these examples because these are countries that we, as a society, are most similar to in culture and society. As a physician, I find this appalling and more than a little embarrassing. We have the best medical facilities and physicians in the world, yet we - as a society - die younger than most other similar societies.

It is my hypothesis that in a society fed a constant diet of fear and violence, we live in a constant state of anxiety; i.e. we are in perpetual "fight-or-flight" mode, physiologically. As a result, we have higher incidences of anxiety-related diseases and, not surprisingly, obesity and depression, as well. We are a society of fear, a culture of anxiety. We seem to revel in it, though it is killing us, day by day.

I, for one, refuse to participate in the vicious cycle we have directly or indirectly fallen into. I will not live in fear of impending terrorist attacks, global warming, gasoline shortages, drive-by shootings, or any other of the 21st Century specters that haunt our televisions. I choose to be happy. I am not going a Polyanna or pretend I live in Never Never Land or the Emerald City but I will not live like - or believe - I am in Somalia or Ethiopia, either. I choose to live without fear. I will work to change what I can and ignore what I can’t. And I won’t allow the media ratings to dictate what I will allow into my mind. I would rather watch a History Channel or National Geographic show than one minute of yet another murder mystery.

By the way, if the world comes to an end, send me an email.

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