Well, I am finally on the road to recovery after my second bout with swine flu (though neither was ever actually diagnosed by a licensed physician). I couldn’t quit following the minute-by-minute analysis of the global epidemic (or is it a pandemic?), complete with the Veep’s warnings, school closures, and “expert” predictions about the rising death toll. I suffered through virtually every symptom during the initial media frenzy and wore a protective face mask until the 24-hour news cycle finally started covering something else (thank you, Susan Boyle). Unfortunately, just a few weeks later, more cases were diagnosed and I learned that H1N1 sufferers often show no symptoms at all, another alarming thought since I felt perfectly fine at the time. The episodes reminded me of my past encounters with SARS (I quit eating Chinese food), West Nile (I now have a mosquito misting system), and Ebola (an odd infliction since I have never been to Africa).
Some suggest that my symptoms were similar to those encountered by first-year medical school students who are stricken with each new disease they study. Others attribute it to the impact of the never-ending news coverage as we are privy to so much (mis-)information from cable and the Internet; many of us now (think we) know as much as our physicians and are able to self-diagnose every new ailment. I may be guilty as charged as I have been known to watch my share of TV. (I must admit, however, much of my recent viewing revolves around Dora the Explorer and Diego the Animal Rescuer. While I am no longer as up-to-date on current affairs, my Spanish has improved tremendously and I would recognize a spectacled bear or baby jaguar if one was ever in any real danger.) Still I glance through the news headlines each morning, catch the occasional celebrity gossip (my wife insists on watching), and read enough blogs to keep abreast of the latest “news” du jour (though I refuse to twitter). Now that swine flu has moved beyond the front page, I can’t help but feel “information overload” may not be such a good thing.
THE PROBLEM WITH CABLE
In fact, just the other day I was having a discussion with a friend about the current state of sports in the age of ESPN. He believes the all-day (and night) sports channels actually “manufacture” news in attempting to tell us what to watch and how to feel. He does not think folks are truly that concerned about steroids, Brett Favre, or Terrell Owens, but have little choice but to follow these stories since ESPN covers them virtually non-stop (I suppose they could change the channel).
I suggested that his hypothesis extends beyond sports to all cable and even the Internet. I can’t tell you how many times I have been watching “The Most Trusted Name in News” or even the “Fair and Balanced” station, when I wondered how this or that story could even be considered news. The anchors seem less credible newsmen/women and more character actors who never sway from their choreographed, made-for-TV roles, regardless of the topic. In many cases, they have political agendas and aim to convince their loyal followers of their hard-line views, all under the guise of delivering the news. The far right conservative hosts blame the ills of the world on President Obama and his Democratic cohorts (with an occasional Clinton tongue-lashing for old time sake). The far left, bleeding heart liberal reporters still scoff at any global calamity as a sore reminder that Bush/Cheney left the world in a far worse place than they found it. I actually thought Obama made a decent analogy recently when he compared cable “chatter” to WWF wrestling; “everyone has their roles, their set pieces” and no one really learns much from their debates (not exactly what Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite had in mind).
Extending beyond politics, CNBC has become the cable station of choice for countless investors looking to get a leg up on the markets and gain a tip or two from its prominent guests, a virtual who’s who from the world of finance (many of whom are no longer employed). Thanks to CNBC and other copycat networks, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner have become household names in this age of information overload. While a better understanding of the global economy and financial markets is certainly not a bad thing, should average folks really be dissecting every move made by the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Secretary? Or should they leave that analysis to those highly educated and informed professionals on Wall Street (the very ones who helped blow up the entire global financial system and report on CNBC daily)?
The network’s biggest “star” yells at the camera and includes all kinds of props when offering investment advice to his countless followers. He so much as admitted that his shenanigans are aimed at increasing viewer ratings, perhaps an appropriate response for a television personality, but less so for one who is viewed by many as an expert on financial affairs. Over the past year plus, frightened investors have turned to people they trust most to offer some semblance of calm and rationale to the disheartening financial crisis. Unfortunately, the man who yells the loudest is not necessarily sharing the best advice (a point proven time and time again). Then again, perhaps investors should not go looking for stock tips (and peace of mind) from TV pundits.
While I would never dismiss the financial debacle and global economic meltdown as media creations, I do believe that the information overload may have exacerbated the widespread panic and contributed to the magnitude of the downturn. Surely financial institutions had major problems within their balance sheets and had taken risks that far outweighed the expected rewards (though prospects for multi-million dollar bonuses must have justified in their minds some of their potentially “criminal” acts). But the 24-hour news cycle put the economic crisis on the front page each day and had many of the “best and brightest” predicting doom and gloom from their respective bully pulpits. How can average folks not be expected to take notice?
You read and hear about the end of the world enough, you finally start to believe it. Consumers restrict spending due to job insecurities; retailers struggle from slower sales; manufacturers cut back production because goods stop moving; businesses quit spending on technology; corporate earnings decline; layoffs follow, etc, etc, etc. Additionally, investors reallocate portfolios to take less risk in these days of uncertainty; others raise cash in anticipation of that job loss; stock prices plummet despite often sound company fundamentals; speculators help exaggerate the price moves by employing bearish strategies; eventually earnings reports confirm weaker operations; prices fall even more, etc., etc., etc. A virtual self-fulfilling prophesy.
WE’RE ALL ENTITLED TO AN OPINION
No discussion of information overload can be complete without at least some mention of those bloggers who provide around the clock insight and analysis on virtually every topic. While many of these sites contain valuable information and concrete facts shared by true experts in their related fields, much of it remains mere opinion written by folks with questionable credentials or knowledge on the topic at hand (like this piece perhaps?). While everyone certainly is entitled to state their views of a subject, the Internet gives us all a forum to reach the masses, and many readers have a hard time differentiating between fact and conjecture. Fortunately, we have credible sources like CNN, Fox, and CNBC to turn to when we need the real skinny on a given topic. As for me, I simply get my news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (that is, when I am not totally engulfed in Dora or Diego or reading a blog about swine flu).