Before Donald Trump co-opted the term “fake news” in flippant disregard for all media which criticized him, it was a more broadly applied term, oft utilized among the left, pertaining to the widespread issue of media manipulation, journalistic exaggeration, and current events fear-mongering by less than scrupulous outlets. Be it gangland violence, immigration, social degradation, or the Satanic Panic that permeated much of the 1980s and early ‘90s, the news media (and more recently, social media) have played a crucial role in stirring up national fear that’s not always warranted by the facts.
Enter Benjamin Radford and his latest book, America the Fearful: Media and the Marketing of National Panics, published by McFarland Books.
Deputy editor of The Skeptical Inquirer and author of several books, including Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, Radford is no stranger to the subject of media manipulation. Having appeared as a commentator on CNN, National Geographic, and The History Channel, Radford is something of an authority on what he terms “phantom fears,” and through the myriad lenses of neuroscience, psychology, journalism, folklore, and (above all else) critical thinking, his latest book not only seeks to examine this ever relevant cultural phenomenon, but aims to offer practical solutions toward fixing it.
Among the numerous examples of sham stories in America the Fearful, the Mall of America’s black Santa, Larry Jefferson, is of particular interest. For the vast majority of Minneapolis mall-goers, retired Army vet Jefferson’s tenure as jolly ol’ Saint Nick during the 2016 Christmas holiday season was a nonissue. But when Minneapolis Star Tribune editor Scott Gillespie tweeted, “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” the media firestorm that followed included headlines such as, “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown Over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory), and “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa at Mall of America” (Huffington Post).
The problem, as Gillespie would later clarify, was that due to “past practice” regarding “stories [with] racial elements,” comments for the article were never open to begin with. There were no racist comments, and however Minneapolis locals felt regarding the Mall of America’s first African American Kris Kringle, it was ultimately the fault of the media for sewing the amplified seeds of divisiveness.
Another such tale recounted in America the Fearful is that of Florida resident “Barbara” tweeting:
I’m really PISSED; my daughter who is in 12th grade recently registered to vote through her high school. Her teacher told the class that they all must register as Republicans or else they would not be allowed to vote. Any suggestions on how to address this?
This was of course followed up with the requisite flood of outraged replies, but further inquiry uncovered that not only was the teacher in question a registered Democrat, he’d merely crafted a classroom scenario around the 2019 primary. The teacher instructed his class to take a survey to determine, based on their beliefs, their political party affiliation. When one of his students, the daughter in question, had a survey outcome of Independent, the teacher aptly informed her that she would not be capable of voting in the primary and (under the given scenario) would have to register as a Republican.
Other stories in America the Fearful include President Trump’s accusations of “Middle Easterners” traveling with a caravan of Central Americans approaching the southern U.S. border (somewhat ironic considering Trump’s close ties to the term “fake news”), the proliferation of “stranger danger” kidnapping tales, and graphs depicting how the media underplays deaths via heart and kidney disease while overplaying stories of homicide and terrorism.
Some of the views presented in America the Fearful, such as those pertaining to mass shooting coverage and skewed police brutality statistics, may rub some the wrong way in light of recent current events (regardless of what the facts bear out), and much of the ground covered may ring familiar to those familiar with Steven Pinker (and his works like The Better Angels of Our Nature). Radford readily admits as much, though, while offering his own unique perspectives and a diverse array of methods to curtail the sometimes problematic roles that the media, social networking platforms, and even misguided good faith activists can take on.
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