A review of A Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things

One Sentence Summary: At the safest and most prosperous time in US history, Americans have been driven into a state of perpetual fear by a constant stream of dire news and politicians eager to take advantage of a wary populace.

In the midst of the McCarthy communism scare, pioneering American journalist Edward Murrow told the nation on See It Now, “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.” Murrow’s words seem to have been all but forgotten today, with daily news shows providing us with a litany of scares to keep us up at night and politicians running exclusively on fear-driven platforms — fear of outsiders, fear of the future, fear of the upper class, fear of the lower class, and most concerning, fear of each other. Yet, even as Americans report feeling less secure, the country is demonstrably becoming a safer place to live. (One typical example: In 2014, over 60% of Americans estimated that crime was increasing when actually, violent crime has dropped 50% since 1991.) What has created and maintained this misconception of a more dangerous world that runs counter to all statistics? In A Culture of Fear, Barry Glassner attempts to answer this question with an illuminating trip through a number of recent scares created and spread throughout the American consciousness.

A Culture of Fear was first published in 1999 and as a result, the majority of the focus is on panic “epidemics” from the 1990s, including violent children, teen moms, rap music, and plane crashes. While some of these fears remain prevalent (CNN’s theme seems to be “never let a good plane crash go unreported”), I was struck by how little I had heard of some of the others. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) and Road Rage, bogus afflictions said to be affecting large swathes of the American population two decades ago, have barely crossed my radar and never been presented as serious issues. Gradually, I realized that this only served to underscore the fleeting nature of these manufactured fears. They have disappeared because they never existed in the first place. Once the public eventually catches on, rather than retract the story, the media simply moves on to the next event sure to “end civilization as we know it.” The motto of modern news organizations is best described as “alarm, confuse, manipulate.” Alarm the public about a false danger, confuse them with misleading statistics or none at all, and manipulate them into consuming ever-greater amounts of coverage and supporting whichever political party the media happens to be aligned with.

Although most of the fears described may not be salient today, the way they are generated by the media and then maintained in the face of all evidence is the heart of the book. As Glassner explains, there are four required ingredients for an epidemic of panic:

  1. Sympathetic victims
  2. Motivated attorneys
  3. Energetic advocacy groups
  4. Heartbreaking anecdotes

Reporters are able to an take isolated incident, say a child is arrested after bringing a knife to school because of a movie he/she watched, and turn it into an epidemic on a nationwide scale: “Knife-toting child shows the sad state of American youth.” The scare plays into already-formed preconceptions about the world at large and targets a group without the ability or the resources to correct the mis-belief (in this case, the preconception is that the next generation is severely degraded, a view expressed perennially since Roman times). Moreover, the story often obscures mundane but critical issues that deserve coverage such as the under-funding of public education. News organizations pick up on the story and seek out other incidents to cover in order to demonstrate the trend. This is a direct contradiction of the scientific method. Rather than observing the evidence and drawing a conclusion based on facts, reporters form a story and then pick out the evidence to support their conclusion, ignoring all the vast amounts of contradictory statistics. One point repeatedly stressed throughout the book is that “anecdote trumps facts.” In other words, an emotional story will always move viewers more than hard statistics even when the numbers show the disproportionate amount of fear we attribute to relatively harmless, even safe, activities. One example that bears mentioning is that in the entire history of commercial aviation, about half as many people have been killed in plane crashes as are killed every year in the United States in motor vehicles. The common refrain that the most dangerous part of any international trip is the drive to the airport is perfectly accurate. Nonetheless, the media is able to stoke people’s relatively minor qualms about flying (claustrophobia or a fear of heights) into massive panic conflagrations with an incessant amount of coverage when a plane so much as lands heavily. On the exceedingly rare occasion when a plane accident does end in fatalities, the media focuses not on the larger trends that show how anomalous the crash is, but on families and individuals that have been affected by the accident. Glassner does not deny that any death is indeed a tragedy for those affected, but he points out that there are no similarly touching stories for the common events that actually kill a majority of Americans, such as heart disease or problems that evolve on a much longer time-scale, such as a widening gap in income levels.

Furthermore, positive news stories that would show how much forward progress humanity has made never elicit even a mention. “Another plane lands safely: that’s 25 million in a row” does not make for an exciting headline even though it was true during 2007 and 2008 when not a single passenger was killed by an airplane in the US. This period was noticeably bereft of coverage of planes precisely because they were too reliable. However, the frenzy started back up again in 2009 at the first crash of an airplane, demonstrating the classic cycle of fear: people are evolutionary inclined to be cautious about the world and place greater weight on negative news, the media is all too glad to provide numerous stories of suffering to feed these worries, and the public becomes even more afraid. The fearful public must then watch the nightly news for the next thing to be scared of. We suffer from an overload of information resulting in an increased exposure to a decreasing number of bad things that happen in the world. As Glassner and others have pointed out, it is not the rate of violent crime and suffering that have increased, it is only our perception of these events.

Why Should We Care?

The Culture of Fear may seem like a glum book, and it is for large parts. However, Glassner makes sure to point out times when journalism did its job by highlighting causes that would have gone unnoticed and ensuring that they were addressed. During the 1980s and 1990s, drunk driving received extensive media coverage, which combined with the efforts of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, led to a 31% decline in the number of alcohol related highway fatalities. Research showed that the rate fell faster in years with more coverage, indicating the public is willing to change their behavior with enough coverage and the right message. Journalism and media coverage should unite us in our common interests — namely health, prosperity, and sustainability — rather than alienate us against outsiders and one another. Moreover, news organizations need to serve as a barrier to the abuse of power by highlighting unsavory practices (see Bernstein and Woodward and their investigation of some suspicious events at the Watergate Hotel) and fully covering the impact of legislation. Lately however, it has seemed that rather than being a check on politicians, the media has become a tool used by political parties to manipulate a public only too willing to be led to supposed “safety.” Like it or not, the media has an exceedingly influential hold on our nation, especially in the political arena. In 2004, during the presidential campaign, the Bush administration pressured the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, to raise the nation’s threat level because they had noticed that it correlated with the sitting President’s approval rating. Increasingly, we are being fed only the news we want to see and hearing only one side of a discussion, political or otherwise. Facebook shows us stories and posts based on what we have liked in the past, and even a simple Google search is influenced by your click history. We unquestioningly accept these stories partly because its much easier to think something is true if we agree with it (a phenomenon known as confirmation bias). This division of every issue is an us vs. them, right vs. wrong dichotomy is detrimental because it does not even allow one to take the point of view of the other side. As Glassner mentions in the last chapter of the book, added 10 years after the original publishing, the fears of the 1990s were almost exclusively directed at other groups within our society. In the years post 9/11, our fears shifted to a distrust of any outsiders which at least temporarily slowed down our increasing distrust of our fellow citizens. Yet, now it appears that we are beginning to turn our fears inward again, except that this time the target is not small subsets of the population, but the entire “other side.” There is still hope to reverse this trend though. There are many large problems to be addressed in the 21st century, and perhaps we can unite behind these endeavors. The first step is to turn off the news and concentrate on the larger issues and real trends that will shape our society on a long-term timescale. At the very least, consume any media with a more skeptical attitude, particularly when real-world statistics do not align with the story. As a public, we must demand that journalism return to its original purpose of holding power in check and covering stories that need to be addressed.In the end, we must remember that the news is not a bastion of truth, but a manufactured product that is designed to take advantage of human psychology and keep us watching without questioning. It is only by recognizing that the content we see is designed by an organization with an agenda, that we can take a step back, examine the situation, and make decisions based not on fear, but on rationality.

Recommendation

When evaluating non-fiction I tend not to give a book a rating out of ten or a number of stars (or whatever shape happens to be in vogue). Rather, I like to ask the question: did I get anything more out of reading the whole book than I could have gotten from a ten-minute summary? My opinion is that some books are important for the content itself, but some books are only useful for the big idea. In the case of A Culture of Fear, even though the main idea was easy to grasp, I found that finishing the book was still beneficial and I would recommend reading through it all. Although most of the examples are somewhat dated, each offered a different perspective and lessons on the architecture of an artificial panic. Moreover, the final additional chapter, added in 2009, was more relevant, with a focus on terrorism and other fears in the early years of the 21st century. The additional chapter also presented some notes of optimism as it discusses the election of Barack Obama, a decidedly anti-fear candidate who ran on the message of hope, the antidote to fear. Although recent events have again highlighted the power of fear in motivating voters, I do not think it is evidence of our society sliding backwards into an “age of unreason.” Rather, I think that rational decision making can reassert itself but it will take a concerted effort by the public to demand a higher level of journalist integrity from our news organizations. The book concludes with a powerful message that shows where we should place our aspirations thanks to a quote from Michelle Obama when asked why she let Barack run for President:

And as more people talked to us about it, the question came up again and again, what people were most concerned about. It was fear. Fear again, raising its ugly head in one of the most important decisions that we would make. Fear of everything. Fear that we might lose. Fear that he might get hurt. Fear that this might get ugly. Fear that it would hurt our family. Fear.

You know the reason why I said ‘Yes’? Because I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of living in a country where every decision that have made over the last ten years wasn’t for something, but it was because people told us that we had to fear something. We had to fear people who looked different from us, fear people who believed in things that were different from us, fear one another right here in our own backyards. I am so tired of fear, and I don’t want my girls to live in a country, in a world, based on fear.

We can escape from the fear-driven cycle with an application of conscious logic when making our decisions. The next time you go to the ballot box or decide to drive rather than fly, ask yourself, am I making this decision out of fear, or because it is the best choice for myself and the country?