A Lesson on the Coronavirus and Media Hype

In 1998, I published an essay called “The Lizard on America’s Shoulder.” I strongly recommend reading it, because it contains a lesson on how hyphenated markets tend to produce newscasts that are highly crime-focused and misleading.

In North Alabama, for example, the TV market includes communities that are spread out by many miles. To properly cover such disparate communities and their parochial mindsets, we needed news bureaus in several places in order to cover everybody. Since, “if it bleeds, it leads,” the stories coming from each of these places are very often crime-related, because, well, crime is easy to cover and a sure thing.

However, the result is a veritable waterfall of bad news, and this taints the minds of viewers who see it all as one, gigantic reason to be terrified. I called this “the lizard on America’s shoulder” as a reference to C.S. Lewis’ terrific book, The Great Divorce. It’s the tale of a busload of misfit ghosts from hell who are being taken to the pearly gates for a second chance. Only one survives and makes it into Heaven, and he’s hounded relentlessly by a red lizard that does nothing but speak filth and trouble into the poor ghost’s ears. He complains to the angel guard that it’s been that way his whole life, but when the angel attempts to kill it, the guy steps back to say, “Don’t touch my lizard.” It’s a metaphor for how evil thoughts can block the way into Heaven.

Eventually, the angel transforms the lizard into a white horse that the ghost rides through the gate in victory.

TV news — and especially when the same story comes from many different places — is the Lizard on America’s Shoulder.

Now, consider the necessary coverage from around the world on the subject of the Covid-19 virus. It’s the same no matter where the story comes from. Even if it’s a nice story of our ability to care for each other and survive, it carries the same coverage weight of any story from the battle zones around the world. The effect is cascading, and no lectures about hype or who’s doing what to whom is going to matter, because it’s the nature of news to scare people.

The role the press plays here is to underestimate its audience, and I don’t think this is something that news people generally think about. In an effort to continue producing archaic, finished-product news, we keep repeating things over and over, as if the audience is somehow unaware.

Last night during my viewing of the CBS show “Bull,” I called my local affiliate to complain about the continuous crawl at the bottom of the screen advising viewers of school closings. This had been going on for at least two full days, but the crawls contained significant repetition. Instead of a simple crawl listing all the school systems that were shutting down on the same day, each school system was treated as its own story and contained the identical language as the previous system. The font was way bigger than necessary, but the real annoyance was the broadcast assumption that THEY were the only source to which people could turn in order to find out if their child’s school would be closed. By Monday night, this was a real statement about how the manager of the station assumed nobody knew. In today’s day and age, this is a ridiculous reason to continue the hype across the station’s programming. The idea that a single media outlet must carry the weight of informing every last viewer was killed and buried long ago, and it’s just another illustration of how the people who manage TV stations are out of touch with reality.

In light of the hyperbolic effect of this lizard-like practice, bulletin-like uses of the press to state or mostly restate the obvious is not only foolish but downright dangerous. These practices have become so automatic that news people aren’t required to actually think about what they’re doing, and it’s one of the reasons they’re becoming useless and obsolete.

Let’s save the news for, well, the news.