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Stupid White Men The Culture of Fear It's A Free Country What A Wonderful World


Culture of Fear Title

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Culture of Fear BookTrue Causation

This is not to say that there isn’t too much violence on the box-both on entertainment programs and on newscasts that precede and follow them, which, as Steven Bochco, creator of "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue," and other police shows has noted, contain more gore than anything the networks air during prime time. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1997 found that even advertisements feature violence-and not only on programs whose content is violent. A child who watched a game of the World Series in 1996 was almost certain to see commercials that included shootings, stabbings, or other violence, the study documented.

Nor do I imagine that televised violence has no negative impact. I doubt, however, that incitement to commit real-world violence is either the most common or the most significant effect. George Gerbner, Dean-emeritus of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, is closer to the mark with what he calls "the mean-world syndrome." Watch enough brutality on TV and you come to believe you are living in a cruel and gloomy world in which you feel vulnerable and insecure. In his research over three decades Gerbner found that people who watch a lot of TV are more likely than others to believe their neighborhoods are unsafe, to assume that crime rates are rising, and to overestimate their own odds of becoming a victim. They also buy more locks, alarms, and-you guessed it-guns, in hopes of protecting themselves. "They may accept and even welcome," Gerbner reports, "repressive measures such as more jails, capital punishment, harsher sentences-measures that have never reduced crime but never fail to get votes-if that promises to relieve their anxieties. That is the deeper dilemma of violence-laden television."

Questions might be raised about whether Gerbner got the causal order right. (Does watching TV cause fear and conservatism, or is it that people prone to fear and conservatism watch more TV?) Yet it is striking how much resistance Gerbner encountered when he tried to report his research findings to the public. Frequently invited to speak on news programs and at governmental hearings where violence in the media is the topic, he finds himself ignored when he raises broader concerns. Appearing on ABC’s "Viewpoint" back in 1983, Gerbner was asked by the host, Ted Koppel, "Is there a direct causal relationship to violence in our society?" A few minutes later, in the course of interviewing another panelist on the program, Koppel summarized Gerbner’s response to that question as affirmative, there is a straightforward causal relationship between TV violence and real-life violence. Yet Gerbner’s actual response had asserted that the true causal relationship is "between exposure to violence and one’s feeling of where one belongs in the power structure-one’s feeling of vulnerability, one’s feeling of insecurity, one’s demand for protection."

Ample real-world evidence in support of Gerbner’s proposition can be found among the nation’s elderly, many of whom are so upset by all the murder and mayhem they see on their television screens that they are terrified to leave their homes. Some become so isolated, studies found, that they do not get enough exercise and their physical and mental health deteriorates. In the worst cases they actually suffer malnutrition as a consequence of media-induced fear of crime. Afraid to go out and buy groceries, they literally waste away in their homes. The pattern becomes self-perpetuating; the more time elderly people spend at home, the more TV they tend to watch, and the more fearful they grow.

All of which is regrettable because in actuality people over sixty-five are less likely than any other age group to become victims of violent crime-about sixteen times less likely than people under twenty-five, according to statistics from the Justice Department. The news media report these statistics on occasion, but more commonly they depict the elderly in the manner a Boston Globe article did, as "walking time bombs for crime, easy prey." They speciously tell their older readers, as did the Los Angeles Times, "that a violent encounter-one that a younger person could easily survive-may end lethally for them: A purse-snatching becomes a homicide when an old woman falls to the pavement and dies in the hospital; an old man is brutalized and dies when he loses his will to live; an elderly couple are unable to flee their home during an arson fire, dying in the flames."

Journalists further drive home this mistaken message through their coverage of crimes committed against famous older people. After Rosa Parks, the civil rights heroine, was beaten and robbed in her Detroit home in 1994 at the age of eighty-one, the Washington Post talked of "weak and elderly citizens living at the mercy of street thugs." Although violent crime against senior citizens had dropped by 60 percent in the previous twenty years, the Post went on to declare in an editorial, "What happened to Rosa Parks in Detroit is a common, modern-day outrage that quietly takes place across our land."

Immediately following the attack on Parks her neighbors had expressed concern that media hype would further stigmatize their neighborhood and city, and Parks herself urged reporters not to read too much into the event. Ignoring Parks’s own view that she had been assaulted by "a sick-minded person," reporters painted her assailant as "a self-involved brute" who "probably thought that as nice as all that civil rights stuff was, he was kicking the butt of just another now-useless old lady who was holding $50," as another Washington Post writer remarked.

To hear the news media tell it, America’s youth make a sport of victimizing old folks. USA Today, in a roundup article on crime against the elderly, told of Nathaniel Hurt, sixty-one, of Baltimore, who shot and killed a thirteen-year-old boy who had vandalized his property. Hurt said he had had enough of neighborhood teens taunting him. In their article USA Today neither depicted Hurt’s actions as vigilantism nor provided information about the boy Hurt murdered. Instead, the moral of the story came from Hurt’s lawyer: "Police don’t want to admit that elderly people in Baltimore can’t go out their door without fear."

Crimes Nouveaux: Granny Dumping

The elderly can trust no one, politicians and reporters suggest. Everyone, including those entrusted to care for them, and even their own flesh and blood, may be potential victimizers.

"The American College of Emergency Physicians estimates that 70,000 elderly Americans were abandoned last year by family members unable or unwilling to care for them or pay for their care," the New York Times reported in an editorial that followed a front-page story heralding a major new trend. "Granny dumping," as it was called, attracted media attention after an incident in Idaho in 1992. John Kingery, a wheelchair-bound eighty-two-year-old Alzheimer’s patient who suffered from incontinence, was abandoned at a dog-racing track by his middle-aged daughter. "John Kingery is no isolated case," said the Times editorial, which, along with other accounts in the media, attributed granny dumping to the strains adult children endure in trying to care for their ailing parents.

In point of fact, however, John Kingery was a relatively isolated case. When Leslie Bennetts, a freelance writer and former New York Times reporter, looked more closely at the Kingery story several weeks later she discovered that Kingery’s daughter had not been caring for her father in the first place; moreover, she had been stealing his pension and Social Security money. Bennetts also looked into how the Times had arrived at the alarming 70,000 figure and discovered it had not come from the American College of Emergency Physicians but rather from dubious extrapolations made by a Times reporter based on a casual, nonscientific survey that ACEP had conducted. Out of 900 emergency room doctors who had been sent a questionnaire only 169 responded, and they reported seeing an average of 8 abandoned elders per week. The Times reporter multiplied 8 by 52 weeks and then by 169 to produce the 70,000 statistic.

Even were this a reasonable way to come up with an incidence rate (which it is not), few actual incidents remotely resemble what happened to John Kingery. In the ACEP survey the definition of granny dumping was very broad: a woman who lived by herself and checked into an emergency room for help qualified. "Moreover," writes Bennetts in a debunking piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, "even a cursory check of emergency physicians reveals that the most common ‘parent-dumping’ problem is quite temporary, not the kind of permanent abandonment implied by the Times." A typical dumping incident consists of caretakers who put an old person in the hospital over a weekend so they can rest up for a couple of days.

Like Halloween sadism, workplace violence, gay-pedophile mass murder, and so many other crimes nouveaux, granny dumping was considerably less common, sensational, or pressing than the media made out. Like other scares about maltreatment of the elderly, the granny dumping scare played off the younger generations’ guilt while letting the individual reader or viewer off the hook by focusing on particularly evil people.

Even in coverage of the sorry state of many of the nation’s nursing homes the root problems of lack of funding and inadequate oversight disappear amid overdrawn images of evil caretakers. "We found them coast to coast in the best of places. Thugs, rapists, suspected thieves," blares the announcer at the beginning of an edition of ABC’s "20/20". "We caught them red-handed rifling through drawers in nursing homes, pocketing valuables and, worst of all, abusing your elderly loved ones." The story, which takes up most of the broadcast, relays incident upon incident of nursing home aides with lengthy criminal records who allegedly robbed and mistreated residents. "Most nursing home owners are not a bit careful about who they hire," someone identified as a former nursing home inspector says, and ABC correspondent Catherine Crier tells of patients being raped and beaten.

Only in passing does Crier note that the pay nursing home aides receive "is notoriously low" for a job that is "difficult and often unpleasant." Nor does the report deal with problems that, unlike rape and other forms of assault, occur on a regular basis in American nursing homes. (According to some reports, 40 percent of nursing home residents suffer from malnutrition, to take one urgent example.)

No, as Crier herself says at the very beginning of her report, "This is not a story about bad conditions in nursing homes, it’s about bad people who end up working there." It is, in other words, another in the endless cache of stories about villains and victims, stories in which real people in their real complexity and the real dangers they and the larger society face can be glimpsed only in the shadows.

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