Glassner’s thesis — that the “if it bleeds, it leads” media culture not only feeds but creates outsized and irrational fears that don’t reflect the society’s real and pressing problems — makes sense to me, but what’s even more interesting about it is that he posited it in 1999. Before Bush v. Gore, the so-called Red State/Blue State divide. Before September 11. Before Afghanistan and Iraq. (Before, for that matter, American Idol and Facebook and Twitter.) It may be tempting to say that these new realities have fundamentally changed the underlying dynamics of the situation. The culture Barry Glassner is describing is gone, so goes this argument, replaced by something altogether different — and now, in many cases, it’s legitimately scary.
It’s more accurate to say that these new fundamentals are not new at all. They are, in fact, iterations (or byproducts, really) of Glassner’s main point. We are very good—too good and getting even better — at recognizing the symptoms of our collective dysfunction(s) and making a public show of wringing our hands over them. We are, on the other hand, pretty bad (and getting worse) at digging out the root causes, which are the same as they have always been:
How we teach kids.
How we establish and enforce rules of justice and commerce.
Whether we make sure everybody can eat, drink, and breathe safely in perpetuity.
How (if) we take care of our sick people and old people.
The savvy (or lack of it) with which nation states advance their interests in the world.
That about covers it. It’s a finite but interminable set of problems. It’s called civilization. Much of the work of addressing the problems of a civil society is and always has been boring and exhausting and it’s usually pretty thankless. Most of us, says Glassner (and he’s right), would rather be entertained, even if that means turning the free world into a horror show.