Fear Less

Gavin DeBecker

Part 5

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Well, most of the rules have changed, but there's a few left to change still, and once they're done, the pa.s.sengers will get the main thing we need from the FAA right now: Just a few seconds of c.o.c.kpit entry resistance during which we can respond.

There are those who'd rather leave responding to an air marshal, but I don't find the air marshal program to be quite the solution it is held out to be.

President Bush quickly responded with a plan implying that air marshals will be on every flight. Many Americans were relieved, but it was just a plan - and one that's not likely to happen. Given that we have thirty thousand commercial flights each day, an air marshal on every flight would require creating one of the nation's largest law-enforcement agencies. Even were that the best use of our resources, it can't happen quickly. And even if it could, an air marshal isn't likely to be more effective than the combined will and intervention of regular pa.s.sengers. Further, pa.s.sengers may incorrectly a.s.sume that an air marshal is on board, and thus hesitate to act if needed. Like many security proposals floated to soothe fear, this one might make things slightly less safe.

As I said in the first chapter, hijackings of the type we have experienced over the past forty years are over. That form of terrorism has been defeated by the lowest-tech security system: the pa.s.sengers' acceptance of reality and responsibility.

I'm sure you embrace the argument that fifty or a hundred pa.s.sengers can easily subdue one or two people trying to get into the c.o.c.kpit. But what if you've never seen yourself in the role of physically taking on another person? The good news is you don't have to. There are plenty of recruits on board every flight, and you might make a different contribution to safety, like my friend Carrie does.

Carrie is a frequent flyer who was understandably afraid about air security after 9/11. She now a.s.sesses all the pa.s.sengers she sees prior to boarding (as you likely do as well). She pays attention to anything that triggers her intuition (as you likely would). For example: two people who aren't traveling together and yet who seem to be communicating in some way, people who are adjusting items under their coats, people who seem uncommonly anxious, people who are suspicious in ways that you can't even explain, etc. Carrie is not shy about making a report to airline personnel.

But Carrie's biggest contribution to air safety is that she selects athletic and capable-looking pa.s.sengers who are waiting in the boarding lounge and introduces herself, asking, "Are you a Let's Roller?" meaning, are you someone who would intervene in the event of an on board problem? She has found that people are happy to talk and are rea.s.suring. Carries fear of hijackers is gone, because by the time she boards, she has a squadron of convivial but effective protectors who have met one another, talked about strategy, and pledged themselves to a highly unlikely but very serious mission.

There's something wonderful about knowing that brand-new friends can be so reliable. Fly happily, because you are already flying more safely than at any time in your life.

NO NEWS AT ELEVEN.

And Five Other Ways to Be Armored Against Terror

ON FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12, 2001, NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw found himself in the middle of all the anthrax stories. For once, he was not reporting only on the travails of others - he had a personal story to tell America. His own a.s.sistant, Erin O'Connor, had apparently contracted an anthrax skin infection - nonlethal, but very unpleasant, and no doubt a sad experience for her and her family, and for Brokaw.

Brokaw devoted a large percentage of the telecast to what had happened, and almost 5 percent of the program talking about his feelings in the matter. He noted that the situation had forced him to move studios and that it was "so unfair and so outrageous and so maddening, it's beyond my ability to express it in socially acceptable terms."

How could this happen? Where in the world could someone have found anthrax? And even if a person knew where it was, how could he get it? And even if a person obtained it, how could he deliver it?

Good questions. Good enough that NBC had been giving Americans detailed answers on these subjects for some time. The very same day of Brokaw's calamity, one NBC News story offered this: "As many as five hundred labs in the United States store samples of anthrax and other biological agents. Access is restricted, but not foolproof." It went on to provide the name of an easy-to-find organization "that lists four hundred seventy-two members in sixty-one countries where labs store anthrax and other deadly agents." The story quoted an expert who said theft was a good way to obtain anthrax because n.o.body would "necessarily be able to see if someone took it from the laboratory." Still not finished, it included three quite excellent suggestions as to how a "dedicated individual" could get anthrax, while another NBC News story provided four more great ideas.

I am not repeating the tips for acquiring anthrax here, a choice that Erin O'Connor - and maybe even Brokaw - might now agree with. (I'll come back to the issue of disclosing dangerously detailed information at the end of this chapter.) On the day Erin's infection was confirmed, the NBC News Web site opened with the guaranteed-to-frighten image of a man in a gas mask, and a story called "Anthrax Concerns Spread Across U.S." Some of the nation's concern no doubt resulted from these NBC News reports: "Anthrax, Never out of Reach," "Preparing for Terror," "Anthrax Vaccine Limitations," "Anthrax Alarm," "Mankind's Weapons of Terror," "Hospitals Ill-Prepared."

In case there was one resilient American left who wasn't yet scared nearly to death, NBC broadcast this distorted warning: "Two hundred pounds released upwind in Washington, D.C., could kill three million people." The word released implies something clawing to get out of its cage and go kill people, when the truth is that most of the imaginary two hundred pounds of anthrax would fall to the ground and most of the supposed victims would be indoors anyway. Maybe if all 3 million people volunteered to go out and scoop the spores into their mouths, NBC's ambitious estimates could be accomplished - but absent that, the exaggerated report amounts to nothing more than an advertis.e.m.e.nt to extremists and madmen, and electronic terrorism for the rest of us.

NBC ran some anthrax stories under the logo AMERICA STRIKES BACK. The more appropriate logo would have been AMERICA STRIKES AMERICA, because that's what's going on when our own TV news terrorizes us.

It seems to me that broadcast news is of greatest service when it tells us what has happened and what is happening now, not when it makes up stories about what might happen or could happen in some awful version of the future. Those stories are not predictions a.s.sembled with some science: they are the electronic equivalent of jumping out of the bushes in the dark and startling us.

Without making judgments about this, let's acknowledge that the news business is a business. It seeks to balance its stated mission of informing the public against its sometimes more compelling mission of competing with others in the same business. The rush to be first appears to have eclipsed the rush to be accurate. You can always speculate now and clean it up later. Language, images, and graphics are carefully chosen toward the goal of getting around our natural editing by making each story seem urgent or significant or new. One result is that many viewers are left swimming in pictures of fear rather than with a balanced perspective on the situation as it stands.

For example, when Tom Brokaw was interviewed on another NBC News show after his a.s.sistant contracted the treatable skin infection, he said he'd be taking antibiotics, and in just the kind of sound bite you'd expect from a seasoned newsreader, he described his experience as "the ultimate nightmare." That doesn't leave much hyperbole for the kinds of things he warns will happen to the rest of us, does it?

When asked on the Today show if he felt the tainted letter was tied to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Brokaw replied, "I think that it would not be appropriate of me to speculate." That is the only time I ever heard anyone in TV news reluctant to speculate, and Brokaw went further: "We just have to stay focused on what we know and not what we don't know." If you start tugging on that thread, the whole fabric of TV news will unravel, because focusing on what is not known is precisely what newsreaders and their producers do most of the time, applying the tools of their trade: speculation, supposition, rumor, gossip, projection, and conjecture.

Having anthrax spores blown into our imaginations, we would, predictably, want to know about treatment and vaccination, and the NBC News anchors had the answers, presented for maximum anxiety: The vaccine, they reported, "is not highly effective, and there were a number of people who were vaccinated that subsequently developed anthrax." They also warned that, "Only one laboratory in the country is capable of producing the vaccine." Antibiotics work, of course, but Brokaw reminded us of what he called "an acute shortage of Cipro." Actually, we'd have an acute shortage only if we had ma.s.s contamination, just as we'd have a shortage of water if it all dried up - but these things are not happening.

Having squeezed anthrax for all its fear value, they switched to other biological scourges, describing in detail how each could attack our bodies. Finally, they resurrected the two plagues - pneumonic and bubonic - and called them "history's most feared contagious diseases." That would seem a good time to tell viewers that bubonic plague is not, in fact, at all contagious human-to-human. They might also have explained that plague was "history's most feared" disease because during much of history there were no antibiotics.

The network's on-air medical expert, Dr. Bob Arnot, was, interestingly, the most subdued (and least broadcast; his comments were removed from their Web site in favor of another medical expert). Dr. Arnot described anthrax skin infection as "not that big a deal in terms of an illness. It's usually recognized . . . it's easily treated with antibiotics, it is not spread from one person to another, it is not a major public-health concern."

Despite this, NBC employees were understandably concerned and afraid when they learned that someone within the company had contracted an anthrax skin infection. NBC executives reacted quickly to soothe the fears of its own employees. An internal memo from the two top people quickly a.s.sured employees this was "NOT the same respiratory anthrax that has been reported on the news."

Contrary to the rapid spread that NBC News has warned us of so many times, the calming corporate executives wrote: "We have no reason to believe that this particular incident has spread beyond this individual employee." They added: "She is in no danger, and she should recover fully and completely."

While NBC News was telling the public that a letter mailed on September 25 definitely contained anthrax, the cooler-headed executives rea.s.sured employees that the letter had been tested by the Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, and the FBI, and added that "all these tests came back negative." It turned out that another letter, found later, did test positive for anthrax. The confusing exercise was hopefully instructive for these executives who were forced to deal with the ever-changing alarm of the TV news -just like the rest of us have to deal with it.

But how were these businessmen so calm? Hadn't they seen NBC's warning about a strain of anthrax "so lethal, just eight gallons could kill everyone on earth"? If you could get your hands on that stuff, you wouldn't even need the list of targets suggested in another NBC story: "air bases, ports, key infrastructure installations, oil and power facilities, desalination plants, and civilian population centers." You could just kill everybody on earth, like they said. (Given Brokaw's understandable outrage about his own experience, imagine how mad he'd be if someone killed everybody on earth.) Seriously, Tom (and Peter and Dan and every other respected TV newsperson), I know that terrorism in America is new to you, too, and you are still getting your bearings. But you can make a huge difference here: Encourage your employers and your peers to stop providing information in a way that is itself hurtful to the general public - and is helpful to our dangerous enemies. Tom, in your excellent interview with Director of Homeland Security Ridge, you said, "We've had a good life. Are young Americans going to have a lifetime of fear?"

You can do more than just pose the question. You can help change the answer.

While I have focused on NBC to make several points, CBS News is also a member of the Frequent Frighteners Club, with its own poor record, including the admonition that Iraq has "approximately three times the amount [of anthrax] needed to kill the entire current human population by inhalation." No word from CBS News on how such inhalation could be accomplished, though their Web site does have a clever interactive diagram of the human body with the instruction to "Click the spots to find out how inhaled anthrax spores can kill."

The CBS News Web site offers stories about anthrax under the heading EXPERIENCE THIS STORY. Why would we want to experience it? In stark contrast to their silly Web site is a comment made by Dan Rather after an employee in his office tested positive for anthrax. Very much to his credit, he said, "Our biggest problem today is not anthrax. Our biggest problem is fear."

Proving Rather's point is Fox News, where I recently saw an interview with an expert on "nuclear terrorism" (an interesting expertise, considering there's never been an act of nuclear terrorism). It just wasn't scary enough, I suppose, so correspondent E. D. Donahey first proposed a viable way for terrorists to get around the difficulty of obtaining nuclear material, and then said, "I'm not giving anyone any ideas they don't already have in their sick minds, but what if they blew up a nuclear device in Times Square?" Fox calls itself "The network America trusts." That is news.

Certainly Fox has the most anxiety-producing style of the major networks. Their stories soar on wings of melodrama, with montages that look like action films, pounding ba.s.s drums, panicky musical scores, striking visual effects, and urgent-seeming sound cues, as viewers are flashed from correspondent to correspondent.

At the other end of the spectrum is ABC, the network that, in my opinion, takes the most reasoned and constructive approach to news - and not a single interactive death game on their Web site. Often, my personal choice has been CNN, for a few reasons. Being on twenty-four hours a day, they have less time pressure, less need to impose false urgency into every minute, and less direct compet.i.tion during hours that other major channels are broadcasting entertainment.

National news is frightening enough, but there's nearly forty hours a day of local TV news produced in every major city - and that's where the fear tactics are field-tested.

If you detect some disdain on my part, it isn't for the people who read the news; I like and respect many of them, just as you probably do. (Brokaw himself has made some compa.s.sionate contributions when out from behind that desk - through his writing.) My disdain is for the choices made by people who produce the TV news. Every word you hear spoken is another choice, every image, every color - all choices. Combine the words, the graphics, the logos, the music, the urgency, and what you end up with is information hidden behind sensation - and the sensation is fear.

Having dedicated my life to helping people put fear in its natural place, it's hard to watch the country be so undone by unnecessary anxiety. Further, the folks who put on the news can do such an excellent job, as they did on September 11 and the days that followed. Those events defied exaggeration. All the newsreader had to do was get out of the way and let us see the images. The stories didn't need to be spiced up ("a tidal wave of dust. . ."). Newsreaders directly and plainly shared the information they had, because those tragedies were, for once, enough just the way they were.

Now that we have lived through the previously unthinkable, our minds are more open to the unfathomable - and television news has rushed through that opening. They feed our hunger to antic.i.p.ate what's coming next with worst-case scenarios and dark predictions for the future, as if those outcomes were logical next steps. Many are not logical next steps. Seeing detail heaped upon detail, watching sober experts validate the wildest of conjectures, viewing footage of locations and hearing step-by-step descriptions of how each doomsday outcome might play out, the audience is left with vivid pictures that take our worst fears a step further than we had likely imagined. With such strong imagery filling our minds, the qualifying words ("might," "allegedly," "unconfirmed," "possibly," "could," "potentially," "conceivably") drop from our consciousness, leaving only the sense that danger is everywhere around us.

Since there can't be a video of what isn't happening, they show us the terrifying footage of a similar incident five years ago. If there were no survivors in a tragedy, they show us an interview with a psychologist who speculates about "their final moments." If nothing like it has ever happened in the history of the planet, they show us an animated version, such as the story days after the last Los Angeles earthquake: "Next up, what would have happened if a tidal wave had been caused by the earthquake!" and an animated depiction of blue washing over downtown Los Angeles (I swear to G.o.d).

Even before the various anthrax incidents and reports (fewer incidents than reports, of course), 30 percent of Americans feared foreign viruses. I actually met a woman with that fear, by the way. I met her, predictably, in a TV news studio. The station was doing a special segment on a lethal new disease virtually certain to kill us all before the end of sweeps week: the flesh-eating disease. Lacking anyone who actually suffered from the malady, the news producer brought in a woman who feared she might have it.

I was introduced to her in the hallway as she headed to the studio, and we talked for a moment. As I watched her interview, it crossed my mind that she could have told me all this before shaking my hand.

But no matter, she didn't have it, and I didn't catch it, and neither will you. This story followed a common template of TV news: One person in a distant location contracted a horrific disease. Someone gave it a name so vivid that it lodged in our minds, a horror story come to life. The appearance of a woman who thought she might have contracted the disease allowed the local station to replay the footage of the unfortunate individual who really did have it, along with warnings from the experts who commented on it. And while the woman I met was never afflicted, the enduring thought burned into the memories of audience members was that flesh-eating bacteria have come to your neighborhood!

Whenever I think about the flesh-eating disease, I hear the words of the television news producer who told me: "A little worry never hurt anybody."

But in fact, anxiety kills more Americans each year than all the foreign viruses, electromagnetic fields, airplane crashes, and blown-up buildings put together - through high blood pressure, addiction, heart disease, hypertension, depression, and all the other stress-related ailments.

With all the risk and danger they bark at us, the news should simply open each evening's show by saying: "Welcome to the Channel Two News; we're surprised you made it through another day. Here's what happened to those who didn't."

Think of the times your mind just wouldn't stop chewing on something, just couldn't stop tossing and turning in its own bed of nails, just couldn't find peace. Recall your worst times in the mind and understand that the TV news is that exact same energy given a billion dollars in resources, wired to propel itself far and near, inspired to dwell on every fear, and nurtured as it spins around the world until it reaches terminal velocity.

The news media is a giant mind, a giant unquiet, over-stimulated mind that won't let itself rest - and won't let the rest of us rest.

If you had a friend who treated you the way TV news has treated you - calling every twenty minutes barking about a new emergency drama - you'd change your number. But when a national news anchor does it with his weighty intonations, we actually volunteer. It's a vast game of telephone, an unleashed gossip virus: "I heard that Saddam Hussein said that he knew a Muslim extremist whose cousin dated an Afghan woman who worked at the hospital where Richard Gere ..."

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In millions of homes, the newscaster is a guest who arrives in the afternoon full of frightening tales and gory pictures. He stays through dinner, enthusiastically adding grisly details that make the kids wince, and he's still around at bedtime to recite a scary story or two. While he's showing the slides of his awful vacation, you slump to sleep, only to find in the morning that he is still there, eager and fast-talking, following you around the kitchen, warning you about the dangers of coffee. If it weren't for the fact that occasionally he says something that's actually important, you'd throw this guest from h.e.l.l out your house.

Maybe the answer to these questions used to be yes, but somewhere in our shared experience of terrible things, there is an opportunity for Americans to reconsider our old role in the news business.

Terrorists seek publicity, the media seek stories, and the rest of us seek shelter from uncertainty. We know that for each unlikely risk we react to, we take on another risk: the risk of being governed by fear. Unwarranted fear is its own tyranny, and every day we bow to it, we move further from the freedom we fought our earliest war to get - and fought several other wars to defend.

THE NEWSSPEAK OF FEAR.

Television has its good side and its bad side.

The good side is, it makes dictatorship impossible.

The bad side is, it makes democracy unbearable.

- SHIMON PERES.

IT WOULD BE INTERESTING if the standards of Truth in Advertising were applied to television news as they sometimes are to television commercials. In that unlikely situation, TV news writers would be required to use phrases and words that convey accurate information - as opposed to the phrases and words they use today.

I want to help you break the code of alarming news-speak so that you can more easily find the valuable information that may (or may not) be part of a story.

Given the disturbing reasons we've all been watching so much TV news, it would be understandable to overlook the sheer ridiculousness that is inherent in some of the sensationalism. Occasionally, the way TV news is delivered can be downright funny, and, indeed, the ability to laugh at something indicates that we are beginning to gain perspective on it. Accordingly, some of what follows is funny, and I have a very clear purpose in offering it: I want to help change your experience of television news, to help you actually watch it differently. I want to provide some tools you can use to ensure that when you watch TV news, only actual information gets through.

Though this glossary is not offered as comprehensive, here are some examples of words and phrases I think you'll quickly recognize.

"POSSIBLE".

As in, "Next up, possible links between Saddam Hussein and tooth decay."

The word "possible" doesn't really have the specificity one hopes for in journalism, given that it is completely accurate when applied to anything anyone can possibly imagine. "A possible outbreak of. . ." means there has been no outbreak. "A possible connection between memory loss and the air you breathe . . ." means there is no confirmed connection.

"Officials are worried about possible attacks against. . ." means there have been no such attacks.

Anytime you hear the word possible, it's probably not happening right now.

LINKS.

"Next up, possible links between convicted murderer Charles Manson and yesterday's traffic jams in the downtown area."

Are these two things linked? Absolutely, if you loosen your criteria enough. Everything is linked by its presence on the same planet with everything else at the same moment in time - but only a very few links are instructive or meaningful.

Links are a great news trick, because you can tie a remote, unconfirmed, or even unimportant story to something that's really pushing b.u.t.tons. "Next up, possible links to bin Laden" is all you have to say to get attention these days.

Almost always when you hear the word link, there is no confirmed link.

"OUR NATION'S".

"Our nation's water supplies," "Our nation's roadways," "Our nation's shipping ports."

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