…and most of the fuel for the political phenomenon and conflagration that is Donald Trump. And it all goes back to ratings.
Let me explain. Quite a number of books and articles by reputed scholars and others that point out – despite the troubles in the U.S. and elsewhere – that we still live in the most prosperous time in human history, with the longest average life-spans and best health, and a far lower percentage of people living in extreme poverty or dying from violent causes. That doesn’t mean life is perfect, only that for most people, it’s a whole lot better than at any other time in human history. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence, despite the statistics, a majority of Americans feel that things are getting worse.
While there’s no doubt that this is true for some people, the fact is that in any dynamic society, things are getting better for some people and worse for others, and in the last decade, middle class earnings haven’t increased, or depending on the definition of middle-class, have actually declined a few percentage points, which is significant if it’s your income. But… compared to a generation ago, things are a lot better. And the vast majority of people suffer less from infectious diseases and from sicknesses caused by environmental factors.
Yet there are huge segments of the population who talk and act as if the United States is on the verge of collapse, despite having the largest economy in the world, the most powerful military force the world has ever known, and a high-tech industrial base that no one else can match.
Because every news program, as well as social media, is permeated with problems and disasters, tales of violence and killings, disaster after disaster – and this has become even more prevalent in the last fifteen to twenty years. And this media-blitz does nothing to put this in perspective. Yes, we have terrorist attacks, but so far this year the total casualties in the U.S. are in the low hundreds, if even that high. We kill over 40,000 people on the highways in a single year, and there’s pressure in many states – as in my own state of Utah – to increase the maximum speed limit. Our freedom to “bear arms” results in over 300 million firearms and over 13,000 deaths a year… and we oppose any further gun controls – but the country is going to hell in a handbasket because a handful or two of Islamic or other terrorists kill a few hundred people?
Modern media technology can tell us of bombings and natural disasters anywhere in the world in minutes, when in the past, people didn’t find out for weeks, or even years, if they ever did at all. This contrast makes the past seem so much safer than the present, when in fact, the opposite is true.
Unhappily, this decades-long media diet of gore, violence, and disaster has created a public belief in how bad things are – and Donald Trump has used this to great advantage in stirring up fear, distrust, and anger. What’s most amazing to me is that the fact-checking outfit Politifact has stated that 70% of Trump’s statements are either mostly false, false, or blatantly outrageously false, yet most Americans don’t see matters that way. By comparison, only 28% of Hillary Clinton’s statements fall into the mostly false, false, or blatantly outrageously false category, yet most people think the two are in the same general range of untrustworthiness. And that, I submit, is because of the media slant on the news in general, that is, “bad is good, terrible is better, and the worse it is, the better for our ratings.”
And, one way or another, we’re all going to pay the price for the media’s gorging on disaster and despair in order to fatten their bottom line, not that my observations, or all those of the scholars who’ve studied the matter in far greater depth than the media or Donald Trump, will persuade many people after decades of commercial brain-washing.