The past few weeks have strikingly revealed an ugly truth about TV. It's a medium increasingly driven by one of the baser human emotions: Fear.
Even before the horrific Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the fearmongers -- cable and broadcast news consultants, segment producers and news directors -- held sway in TV news, where many people, sadly, get much of their news.
Often, it's body-bag journalism, practiced prominently in many major TV markets. I recently watched local TV news in Seattle, and all the newscasts there led with stories of shootings, murders, car accidents, fires, and possible freeway collapses.
Just listen to the scripts on TV and cable news sometime. Check how many times you see a direct line to the fear centers and the limbic brain: Phrases like "officials are worried," or "rising fuel prices," or "The stock market plunges," "Disaster," etc., etc. Cynically manipulative? Oh, maybe just a tad.
But the fearmongering has crescendoed to a new low during coverage of the Japan tragedies.
Among the phrases heard often on cable coverage were "panic" and phrases like "could the U.S. West Coast be in the crosshairs?" ( Sarah Palin must have liked that one.) Or this, from a CNN meteorologist: "We're not seeing a nuclear winter ash cloud." No, but we're saying it, and that's what counts.
Another recent CNN tease had a graphic reading: "Radiation worries in U.S." Followed by an anchor's, "We'll fill you in on why there's no need for panic." Whatta guy! What a relief!
Another early favorite: The constant use of footage of empty shelves that panicky individuals had emptied of potassium iodide pills. Followed, of course, by don't-do-this cavaets.
Nuclear power is arcane and difficult for most of us to understand. So, when there's any problem with a reactor, TV will hyperventilate and quickly brand it as a "crisis." Something potentially deadly you can't see -- radiation -- is constantly and shamelessly exploited for its fear factor. The same shots of reactor explosions run on what looks to be a tape loop.
Yes, there have been a few sane, rational voices appealing for calm, but they have been drowned out by TV's alarmist tone. The big tragedy Japan -- the almost unimaginable loss of property and life and the reduction of several Japanese cities to kindling -- has clearly taken a back seat to the Reactor and Radiation Scare of '11.
It's just TV doing what TV does worst.