Jewish World Review May 6, 2003 / 4 Iyar, 5763

Media Person

Media Person
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Kick this sick shtick | Have you caught SARS yet? No? Too bad. You could get your picture in the paper and be interviewed by Paula Zahn, maybe even get yelled at by Bill O'Reilly ("Why didn't you wear a mask if you were eating Chinese takeout?" he'd shout.) You would be famous because hardly anyone in this country has the dread disease, so you'd be big, big news. You might die, but at least you'd get your name in The New York Times. Of course, it's not that easy to get SARS. It would take a lot of time and money.

Yes, Media Person is making fun of SARS. Is that all right with you? Media Person doesn't care, so don't bother sending him any angry letters or IMs. The correspondence would only go something like this: You: Don't you realize that people have DIED, you impudent jackal? MP: Oh, shut up.

We've all been played for SARS suckers. The media have gone slightly crazy over the thing and are now hurriedly trying to put on the brakes. They're starting to chastise themselves for helping to spread panic over something that's not really panic-worthy. (OK, if you live in China you can panic but not in the U.S.) Media Person always loves this cycle of the media going overboard, then punishing itself.

Time and Newsweek had embarrassingly similar covers ... for about the 8,000th time. They both had a huge face (of a beautiful Occidental female model, of course) wearing a white mask. (The Newsweek model's eyes were wide with fear. Time's just looked sexy.) They both had the word SARS emblazoned across the mask. The two weeklies had converged, simultaneously reaching a peak of inanity. What message were these alarmist images supposed to convey? Americans, except for the contestants on Mr. Personality, weren't wearing masks. There was no SARS to speak of here, or anywhere, except China and Toronto, and the problem in Toronto seemed under control. Media Person will tell you what the message was: "BOOOGA BOOGA! GET SCARED! FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON!"

New York's Chinatown was empty of visitors. Everywhere, people were shunning Chinese restaurants and canceling Asian vacations. Like you're going to get SARS from a pupu platter on the Upper West Side or a bike trip to Angkor Wat. Isn't it lovely when people start behaving like witch burners in the Dark Ages? A few scary headlines and we suddenly lose our 700 years of rationality indoctrination, the voodoo dolls come out of the closet, and next thing you know we're all smearing ourselves with animal blood and dancing naked by torchlight. What a ridiculous species we are. What a bunch of morons. Frankly, Media Person is disgusted with us. He can't take it anymore. He wants to find a new planet.

Finally, the op-ed pages started running pieces pointing out how out of proportion the SARS lunacy was. The New York Times had a spectacular poster titled "The Epidemic Scorecard," showing how old, familiar diseases like TB, malaria, Hepatitis B, AIDS, measles, etc. take millions and millions and millions of lives every year as opposed to that little punk SARS with its ridiculously low death rate of 353 out of 5,462 cases. Three fifty-three!?! This is the big bad virus we're so scared of? Pathetic. We probably lose more people to lightning on the golf course and spilled hot coffee.

The Wall Street Journal had an op-ed piece on SARS and the media by Media Person's new hero, David Baltimore, whose existence MP was previously unaware of, which is slightly shameful since the guy is a Nobel Prize-winning virologist and biology superstar, not to mention president of Caltech, which is apparently what they now call the California Institute of Technology.

It wasn't just the Journal piece that wowed Media Person but an interview Baltimore gave the Los Angeles Times. To be exact, it was the very last paragraph of that interview (which MP never would've noticed except for Jim Romenesko flagging it on his invaluable Poynter Web site). Here it is. Memorize it. Write it on walls.

"The media believe, and I can't say they're wrong, that people just enjoy being scared," Baltimore said. "And because their readers and viewers enjoy it, the media play to it."

Does that ever nail it. We enjoy being scared. We love it. And so our media take these new diseases that keep popping up and turn them into horror reality shows. People pore over these How-the-Virus-Spreads articles and thrill to the chilling possibilities.

D'ja see this? Says here it could mutate into an even more lethal germ! Omigod, says here that three victims who died from it are still walking around sneezing on people! Oh, no! Says here that someone died from just watching a TV documentary on SARS! Good L-rd! Says here you can catch SARS from someone with AIDS!

It's enough to make you sick.

JWR contributor Media Person -- a.k.a Lewis Grossberger -- is a columnist for Media Week. Comment by clicking here.


04/16/03: Important developments you may have missed because of all the war stuff clogging up the media
03/25/03: To go or not to go
03/12/03: How to talk war talk
03/04/03: Two master debaters
02/26/03: The Miracle Continues: Ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies
02/19/03: Yanking the Franks
02/05/03: LET MY LETTERS GO!
01/28/03: Into the Pity Pit
01/15/03: Not My Cup of Joe
01/09/03: It was back in '03
12/17/02: Did you get taken?
12/05/02: Mathers of importance

© 2002, Lewis Grossberger