You know the game Mad libs? It involves a story of some kind, but with details missing. “_____ and ______ ______ to the ______, where they’re attacked by a savage_____.” And you say to your friend, ‘give me someone’s name. Now a noun. Next, an active verb. Followed by a noun.’ And they go ‘Iggy Azalea. Daffodil. Brick. Zip. Aardvark.’ And you fill in the blanks: “Iggy Azalea and a daffodil breathe to the brick where they’re attacked by a savage aardvark.” (Answers, in this case, provided by my wife). And we all laugh. And, in this case, root for the aardvark.
Well, watching some of the Sunday news programs, it occurred to me that the news cycle has become a big game of Madlibs. It goes like this: “___a___ is a huge problem. It poses an existential threat to the continuing existence of the __b____. But ___c___ has not _____d_____. Instead, President Obama has ___e____. As a result, ____f___. What’s needed now is ____g_____.” Everything’s always an emergency, and the threat level is always high. And that very last blank, the correct answer is always “Presidential leadership.” Which, in every instance, has been inadequate. That’s the game; that’s how the story is shaped.
Let’s play. a) has included, in recent months, Syria, Ukraine, Putin, ISIS, and Ebola. b) is pretty much always The United States, unless it’s The Planet. c) is always ‘current polices’ and d) is ‘have not succeeded. e) is pretty much always ‘has not formed a policy,’ or ‘been indecisive,’ unless we watch Fox, in which case it’s ‘has been playing golf.’ f) changes depending on the story; it could be ‘Syria remains a trouble spot,’ or ‘Ukraine’s government is endangered,’ or ‘we’re all going to die of Ebola.’ g), of course, is ‘Presidential leadership.’ It’s always Presidential leadership that’s lacking, is needed, has not been forthcoming. It’s pretty much always Obama’s fault.
The national, mainstream media loves this storyline. ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC; they all rely on the same script. It’s dramatic. It can be sustained indefinitely. It turns every situation, domestic or international, into a crisis. They imagine us, home watching television, shaking in our boots. (Mostly, we’re not. Me, I’ve been watching the World Series). And of course, all those news organizations pretty much have to do this to justify their existence. They are competing for audience share, and the shows with which they’re competing are similarly expert in creating a breathless sense of drama and urgency and crisis. Will the cops on CSI catch the serial killer? Will the Walking Dead folks get turned into zombies? Will Tom Brady win another ring? Will Penny dump Leonard, will Sheldon get a clue about Amy? Will Isis attack Manhattan, will Ebola kill us all?
The answer to those last two questions, of course, is no. Emphatically, definitively no. Isis controls part of northern Syria and western Iraq, and are primarily a threat to the Kurds and to Yazidi Christians. Isis poses a humanitarian threat, of course, and if the Iraqi army is unable to cope with them–and so far, the Iraqi army’s response has been tragi-comically inadequate, though Kurdish forces have been far more effective–there may be further steps that the international community, most especially the UN, may have to take. But the notion that ISIS poses a genuine threat to the United States is preposterous. We know what ISIS wants–to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. That goal is entirely unachievable. There are a few things the US can properly do about ISIS. For the most part, President Obama has done them.
As for Ebola, well, it’s a terrible disease, in West Africa. There have been approximately thirteen thousand reported cases, mostly in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and to a lesser degree, Guinea. Around five thousand people have died. That’s awful. Five thousand of our fellow human beings, dead. What a dreadful thing for those people, those communities, those families. The World Health Organization has been highly (and properly) critical of the inadequacy of the international response to the disease, insisting that proper quarantine measures could completely contain the outbreak. Meanwhile, the Center for Disease Control has been working on a possible treatment, and Doctors Without Borders’ medical personnel have been absolutely heroic.
But here? In the US? Have you heard the joke about Ebola? I’m not going to tell it; you won’t get it. (rimshot). There is no Ebola crisis in the United States. It’s not an easy disease to catch, and if you haven’t been working in close proximity to Ebola patients, in personal contact with their bodily emissions, you’re not going to get sick with it. Watch; the next big story is going to be people getting the flu, and panicking, because they’re sure it’s Ebola. The national news has been ridiculously irresponsible in their reporting of this issue. It’s not a crisis.
But Madlibs news is pretty much always irresponsible. It’s always interesting to watch ABC’s This Week news program. The New York Marathon took place yesterday. ABC previewed the race. What was their focus? The possibility of a terrorist attack. Of course. Terrorists are scary.
And so these oh-so-serious journalists interview actual terrorism experts, and ask serious questions about the serious security measures in place during the race, and it all sounds really seriously dangerous. And the people they interview take the possibility of terrorism seriously—that’s their job. They can’t very well say ‘look, there’s essentially no chance of a terrorist attack at this race.’ They’d look terrible if there were an attack. But they ran the race, and there was no attack, and honestly, that’s about what we should all have expected. Our reaction shouldn’t be ‘whew. Dodged a bullet there.’ It should be, ‘life goes on. Nice job, Wilson Kipsang.’ He’s the dude that won it. Good for him. Amazing athlete. Make him the story.
Human beings are terrible at risk assessment. We really are pathetically bad at it. We’re terrified of an exotic foreign disease, while munching down Big Macs, blithely ignoring the fact that nobody in the US has died of Ebola, and 600,000 of us die annually of heart disease. We freak out over the possibility of an airplane crash, but drive ourselves to the airport in our cars, quite forgetting that the drive is much more dangerous than the plane ride. And, of course, terrorism has us terrorized. While 30,000 people die a year from gun violence.
The Madlibs approach to news has, of course, political implications. President Obama’s approval ratings are very low right now. In Utah’s hottest Congressional race right now (and one in which I, alas, can’t vote, because I don’t live in that district), Mia Love will probably beat Doug Owens. Her ad campaign is breathtaking in its simplicity–she shows a picture of Doug Owens and a picture of President Obama. Boom. As much as the Republican House is loathed nationally, most Republican incumbents are going to win reelection, and Democrats are in trouble. Why? Because President Obama hasn’t ‘done anything’ about ‘all those crises.’ Because he ‘hasn’t shown Presidential leadership.’ Fill in the Madlibs blanks. Old people vote Republican, old people watch the news, and old people scare easily. And voting’s hard. You have to, like, stand in line. It’s going to be a landslide.
And the one thing you can’t say is the simple truth. ISIS is not a crisis. Ukraine is not a crisis. Ebola, for heaven’s sake, is absolutely no crisis at all. President Obama has handled all those situations exactly appropriately, because in each case, there wasn’t much to be done. The ‘lack of leadership’ meme is a phony, fake narrative, drummed up for the sake of ratings by news organizations desperate for relevancy. ____a_____ is actually ___b_____. The only thing we have to ___c____ is ______d_____ itself. Fill in the blanks. a) America. b) doing fine. c) fear. d) fear.