Summary: See the hidden horrific news about the epidemic sweeping across America, and why we see no headlines about it. This shows a core problem in America – and points to a solution.
Here is horrific news about the epidemic from the CDC’s Jan 25 report: there are 19 million cases in the US, 180,000 of which have been hospitalized – of whom approx. 10,000 have died (including 68 kids). For unknown reasons, the CDC and local health agencies do not have an exact count of either the number of cases or the deaths. Is this incompetence or corruption? Nor have they declared a pandemic alert and mobilized the full resources of the nation to fight this epidemic. Worse, journalists bury the news about it.
Yes, this is the flu, not coronavirus. Advice to Americans about measures to fight the flu might save the lives of thousands. Telling Americans about progress of the epidemic would encourage us to take these simple effective measures. But it is not news.
As of today’s WHO report, so far there are 191 cases in the world outside China, one new nation affected in the past 3 days – and one death. The world’s population outside China is 6.4 billion. Nobody can reliably predict the future course of the epidemic. But misleading headlines about it are the news so far, especially portraying an epidemic in China as a global disaster (e.g., reporting global numbers without mentioning these are almost all in China).
The real story, as I said 12 days ago, is the rapid and powerful response by the world’s public health agencies – added by the wonders of modern technology. But selling fear is much more lucrative, so that is what the media does. There is a simple reason for this.
“Bad money drives out good.”
— Gresham’s Law, discovered in 1860 by Henry Dunning Macleod.
Gresham’s Law works as relentlessly gravity, as people use low-quality money and hoard high-quality money. Something similar occurs today in the US information markets – among the most free markets anywhere, ever. Good information gets less attention than sensational but dubious or even false information. We see this in every epidemic, such as Ebola and Swine Flu. We see this in the hysteria about climate change, which years ago cut loose from any foundation in climate science (e.g., here, here, and here).
But this is not the workings of a natural law (such as gravity) or rational choice (such as Gresham’s Law). It is our choice, rooted in our values. To survive, publishers of news and analysis provide the garbage that people want, and boring accurate information gets sidelined.
The news is a mirror to America
Citizens need news. Subjects want entertainment.
— My law.
Most of American’s early leaders (especially Jefferson Andrew Jackson) saw the farmers, merchants, and craftsmen of America as the foundation of the Republic. These were economically independent citizens, interested and capable of self-government. But this class was wrecked during the Gilded Age. The outer party is their politically impotent remnants: corporate middle managers, small business owners, and professionals. They lack time for political involvement. More importantly, they lack the economic independence that Jefferson considered necessary for citizens, unlike the equally liberty-loving but feckless mobs of Paris (then and now).
The outer party is the largest body of people interested in current events and with the money to either pay for it or attract advertisers. It is a happy hunting ground for media firms. To survive they must understand what the outer party wants: simple stories that explain events in terms of good guys and bad guys. Cheer our team! Thrill at tales of the bad guys’ dastardly deeds! They want stories that provide entertainment and catharsis plus a sense of belonging to a community (a virtual tribe). Politically ineffectual, they want to believe themselves engaged. So they consume information to become well-informed and online comments (21st C letters to the editor).
This explains American’s disinterest in experts’ record of failed predictions and bad advice (e.g., scientist Paul Ehrlich on the Left, economist Larry Kudlow on the Right). So what if what we read about the world is inaccurate, since we have no intention of using this information? Collectors of maps do not care if the maps are correct. They want pretty maps with colorful dragons on edges. Only people with goals demand accurate charts.
“Not my fault” should replace “E pluribus unum” on coins, since it better fits a multicultural society than “One out of many.” Calls to risk “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” hit us like daylight on vampires. Saying “responsibility” can clear a room, since that would require us to act. We know that our problems come from the evil people of other tribes. We see ourselves as the passengers of the cruise ship America; we whine that the service is not worthy of our awesomeness.
Brilliant minds in the media business understand us, and so their products provide infotainment packaged as serious news and analysis. Fox was one of the first to realize this and the most determined to provide what we want — and so became the largest beneficiary from the evolution of Americans from citizens to subjects. To survive most of the news media must follow in their footsteps, or find patrons in the 1% to fund them (e.g., Jeff Bezos for the Washington Post, Pierre Omidyar at The Intercept).
Life moves fast on the internet, and the big nodes that get the traffic are those that give the outer party what it wants (posts about political reform on the FM website get 1/4 of the usual pageviews). This is the underlying story of fake news. For more about it, see The secret source of fake news. Its discovery can change America!
“Choice. The problem is choice.”
— Neo in The Matrix Reloaded.