The notion that cable news is bad for you has been around for the past 40 years in one version or another, but during the coronavirus pandemic, the corrosive effects of its overhyped wolf crying on our psychology are particularly unhealthy. By wolf crying, I don’t mean to diminish the absolutely horrific nature of the events unfolding across the USA and the rest of the world right now. But there is a productive way to report these events and an unproductive way to report them. It is productive to report the facts of the pandemic in sober tones, with realism, balance, and poise. It is not productive to cry despair at every stray tweet that tumbles out of the damaged mind of our current President or to hang on to the lugubrious verbiage of celebrities who are themselves so far removed from harm's way that the thought of a day without lattes and soul cycle sends shivers down their spines. For the first time in their lives, these rulers of the world’s masterclass - and that is what they are, the 1% masterclass - are understanding what some small amount of true privation feels like. The pundits cannot relate to the poor, and this is reflected in their reporting.
That is not to say that there have not been genuine moments of emotionally intelligent coverage of the coronavirus. The gravity of the situation has been reflected passably by Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow. Erin Burnett shed tears on one segment recently. Ever since they collectively face-planted at the beginning of March, the quality of the coverage on Fox has been excellent by their own standards, which means they have done their usual blend of White House line-toeing and mediocre reporting with sprinkles of solid journalism thrown in to throw off their less savvy critics. But keep in mind, these people have never missed a meal due to economic hardship in their lives, with the notable exception of Glenn Beck, who seems to have emerged from his early experiences of personal struggle as a younger man completely untainted by compassion for the poor. Cooper, the scion of the Vanderbilt industrialist family, has been clear-eyed in criticizing other in his 1%-er class as usual, but only aware of the suffering of the poor in passing segments that fail to drive home the hardship everyday working poor, especially people of color, face as they keep goods and service flowing into the houses of the isolated professional class. For the men and women who direct the leading newsrooms, the plight of the poor and at-risk in this pandemic is an academic concern, one to be lamented like the death of a character in a novel, and their new-found concern that they could themselves be impacted in any way, let alone sent to the hospital never to return, comes off as completely hypocritical after their year-long pummeling of the idea that healthcare is a human right during the past primary season. At worst, the cable news industry is now forced to carry on despite the displacement of studio crews and confinement of news hosts to their spacious apartments and cushy homes in upscale neighborhoods.
The problem with their coverage of the pandemic is not that it is not accurate. The problem is that it is fetishized. The cable news industry has become a death cult of sorts, thriving off the corpses of the coronavirus victims piled high in freezer trucks, the misery of healthcare workers, and the anxiety of the general public who is addicted to their non-stop stream of emotional intensity. The goal of cable news is to keep us firmly planted in front of the screen, anxiety building and releasing in predictable bursts while the ad breaks fund corporate fortunes. We have known about this problem with cable news for years. But during the coronavirus, which is more real than any threat they’ve screamed about for the past few years, we must now turn them off to save our sanity.
Think for a moment how unhealthy it is to sit in front of the television and consume overhyped emotionally alarming programming for more than 30 minutes at a time every day right now. If cable news was bad for our brains before this crisis, it can’t be any better right now and might be even worse. We are stuck inside, we are nervous, and we want to know what is going on outside. But cable is the wrong way to go about satisfying our need to know. It is toxic, distracting, infuriating, and anxiety-producing at a time when we need to remain calm, focused, and unified. It foments conflict at a time when we need to forgive each other for partisan squabbles for the moment so we can survive this time and save lives. And we are the lucky ones.
Think of the workers in Amazon's vast warehouses who are stuck shipping sex toys and VR headsets to professional-managerial class households to keep the well-off entertained during this time of isolation. Think about all of the paranoiacs, all of the unstable people who haven’t been to therapy in weeks, all of the relapsing drug addicts and fresh victims of domestic abuse. Think of all of the people who don’t know where they’re next meal will come from unless aid groups like Food Not Bombs save them. How does watching cable news factor productively into their lives right now?
Instead of consuming the constant stream of negativity and melodrama, let’s get to work making masks. Or at least listen to podcasts, play video games, start a puzzle on the bedroom floor. In this time of uncertainty and under-explained, over-reported numbers, it is wise to limit one’s consumption of hyper-emotional content. Anyone in the military understands how unhelpful such biased and highly stylized information communication can be in stressful situations. Perhaps 30 minutes of cable news once or twice a day to check the headlines is acceptable, but more than that and you risk elevating your own blood pressure more than necessary.
If you want to see an example of the kind of high-quality journalism Americans deserve, check out France 24’s live stream on YouTube. France 24 is an international news station broadcast in English from Paris. The contrast in styles between France 24 and American cable news is stark and astonishing. Watching France 24 is like taking a shower for your brain followed by a green smoothie and a good talk with a close friend while watching American news is like cleaning the Glock you panic-bought but you don’t know what you’re doing because you’ve never touched a gun before. One is wholesome, good, and productive. The other is alarming and dangerous. France 24 has the sort of news segments that will guide you through the crisis, mental state intact, while keeping you informed and having fun. They will do a segment on the coronavirus numbers in Italy, Germany, the UK, France, the US, South Korea, Nigeria, and then follow that up with a 15-minute jaunt through the history of the French language to clear any tension that might have built up from all of the scary numbers. Such reporting may seem frivolous if all you know is Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room and Fox News-style rage-reporting. But the longer you watch, the more you realize how little of what American cable news has any real impact on the world, how little it adds to your life, and how useless it is considering how efficiently and substantially France 24 is able to convey the same information. You will be well enough informed and also not have your day in isolation ruined further by a panic attack. Moreover, you will understand how this crisis impacts the poor more than yourself.
So look: the numbers are bad and they will continue to be bad for a while. We know that already. Are there problems worth paying attention too regarding our leadership, corruption, health advisories, and other dramas of historic proportions? Yes. But if you feel your blood boiling and your mind racing, it might be your brain on cable news. So take a day or two off. Stay inside. Wear a mask. Bake some cookies. Maybe even read the newspaper. But for Pete's sake, don’t binge-watch cable news right now.