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Hype & Fear vs. Hope & Change

When we were kids, there were all kinds of scary shows and movies to give us chills and thrills, prompting us to look for goblins and boogeymen under the bed and in the closet. (Anyone remember Alfred Hitchcock?) Halloween was a time to put on the masks of the monsters, a way of “un-scaring” ourselves, so to speak.

I guess that’s why elections are held so close to the day we confront our ghosts and ghouls.

One thing we’re supposed to learn as we become adults, though, is the difference between things we should fear and the apparitions of hype.

Moving out of politics to public health for a moment, let’s ask, should we panic about Ebola? What is the source of our fears? Is our fear based on severity and rate of infection? According to the World Health Organization, Ebola’s rate of infection is, on average, 2 (one person infects two). Not an effective transmitter, but deadly once there’s an infection. The rates of infection for mumps and measles are 10 and 18, respectively.

So you should be more concerned about getting your children vaccinated for mumps and measles — you can directly control that. And, of course, we should educate ourselves about how Ebola is transmitted, what our public health organizations are doing (with far too few resources — thanks, Congress) to combat it, and what precautions we should take.

But panic? Drunk drivers, those who text and drive, and guns in schools should cause more alarm.

So why is the media hitting the scream machine button? Because the media, like the monster in a sci-fi horror flick, feed off our fear and panic. It’s the ratings, stupid! How tragic.

Of course the world is a dangerous place. Dangers near and far are real. But it’s the faraway dangers that dominate the headlines and keep us in a state of heightened fright. After all, it seems like the threats of terrorism, war and epidemics are everywhere. Clearly, the White House should dismantle a few federal agencies and set up a crisis management operation to deal with the daily dosage of “alarms.” This is serious stuff, folks.

But it’s been that way since the dawn of civilization. People in ancient Mesopotamia dealt with the same sorts of challenges that people in today’s Middle East deal with — and they did so with far fewer technological, medical and scientific resources.

What they didn’t have to deal with was a 24-hour news cycle that sucked their energy and attention and hyped the fear and phobia. They had kings and satraps directing what they did, not conglomerates and corporatists controlling what they thought.

There were cuneiform tablets, but as far as we know, no cuneiform tabloids. And there was certainly no cable news or Internet to put the problems of all the other ancient civilizations in their kitchens.

Ironically, one of the reasons we’ve survived the litany of terror, war and disease since ancient times is because of the technology — the same technology that’s given us the communications infrastructure that allows the fear-mongers and mad scientists of the media to hype, panic, scare and confuse.

Technology — from the wheel to fire to the combustible engine to computers and beyond — is a tool. Tools can be used for good or evil, to cure diseases or pollute the air and water, to build bridges or to isolate communities.

So when our news media resemble a Wes Craven movie, we have to ask, “Why? Who benefits?”

Fear is profitable. Look how much the horror and low-budget slasher movies make. Look at Dean Koontz’s book sales.

But the media know that stories of hope and change, stories of compassion and our shared humanity also sell as much as, if not more than, the doom-and-gloom, be-afraid cliches.

So if the media prefer hype and fear beyond ratings or profits, then why? Who benefits? Those who themselves fear hope and change and progress. But who would fear hope and change and progress? Those who might lose power or influence and those who would have to step up and lead versus whining and overhyping for short-term partisan gain.

Yes, I’m talking about politicians, and their wealthy, well-connected donors. You know them. They are the privileged who want to hoard privilege, deplete resources and exploit people. I’m talking about those whose motto when it comes to Obama administration policies or Democrats who could improve the lives of children, students, the poor or even the working class, is: “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

Like the politicians who condemned President Obama for appointing policy czars and now demand one for Ebola response. (Hint: Don’t slash the budget for public health and approve the nominated surgeon general.). Like those who praised former Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012 for saying he’d get unemployment below 6 percent by 2016, and condemn Obama for getting it to 5.9 percent by 2014. Like House Speaker John Boehner’s admission that the GOP has no jobs plan. Like those who won’t raise corporate taxes, but shriek in horror at raising the minimum wage.

Let’s face it — it’s shameless. All of it. Too mad we cannot all collectively shout back “Boo!” Let’s leave the fake fears and virtual frights to a master like Stephen King.

Let’s remain hopeful, not mean or fearful, and believe that we can handle all these crises. And yes, while we are at it, let’s remember that we are resilient.

Halloween will soon be here and gone. Let’s enjoy “trick or treat” the way it was meant to be.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.

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