The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


In a front page, above-the-fold color photo in this morning’s South Florida Sun Sentinel, a man busily fills not one or two, but at least eight red plastic 5 gallon gas cans in preparation for “Ernesto’ — the killer tropical depression (currently disorganized with winds of almost 50 mph!) moving across the Florida straits toward Miami.

Every media outlet in South Florida and most of the national MSM provide hourly reports, hinting at potential devastation without a solid factual shred of evidence that devastation will occur.

Of course, it is hurricane season, and after last year’s storms -- Katarina and Wilma -- people are a bit skittish. But come on -- we live in hurricane country, tropical storms are not all that uncommon. The vast majority produce relatively little real damage, some flooding, and a few downed power lines and trees – nothing even remotely catastrophic. And yet, gas lines began forming yesterday, grocery store shelves emptied, and everyone, it seems, is on edge.

It’s reasonable to ask, why?

The media creates a “state of fear” (borrowed from Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name) in situations like this. From the earliest ominous projections of storm path (the background music is a hoot) to breathless entreaties to be prepared, local television and newspapers guarantee three things: (1) that readership and viewership will increase substantially as the storm approaches, 2) that government officials will make stupid decisions in an effort to cover their collective behinds, and (3) that citizens will incur unnecessary expense and stress without a clear evaluation of risk.

To illustrate: At the moment, it a beautiful sunny day in South Florida with high clouds. Projections indicate that Ernesto will “strike” around midnight – earliest. But every school age child in Palm Beach County has the day off. Why? Government CYA, that’s why.

Whipped into a frenzy of concern by the media reports, the county Board of Education (BoE) decided that it was simply “too risky” to have classes today. Remember, we’re not talking Hurricanes Andrew or Katarina here – Ernesto is a tropical storm. So much for the importance of educational “time on task,” “no child left behind,” etc., etc. It’s much more important to err on the side of safety – even when safety risks are non-existent.

In a way, I understand the decision. If the BoE held classes and through a freak set of circumstances, a single child tripped over a broken tree limb and skinned her knee, the media would be all over this tragedy – asking “hard questions” about why the BoE was so callous with regard to student safety. So a million children sit home watching TV, parents stress out, and most of us feel just a little silly.

We are, I’m saddened to say, becoming a nation of wimps. Worse, we seem to be unable to think critically about the information that is spoon fed to us by the media – information that is often sensationalized, inaccurate, and/or misleading. And because we refuse to critically assess risk, we do dumb things, worry about the wrong threats, and play the blame game every chance we get. But I’ve got to stop writing so I can go hide in the closet – after all, Ernesto is coming.