When all is said and done, most Americans will not be affected by Hurricane Irma. No doubt some will be profoundly affected – losing property or maybe even lives. But by their very nature, natural disasters are a local affair. Irma will not affect those in Wyoming, or Maine, or Arizona – yet Americans across the country were glued to coverage of the storm.
At its best, this fascination with large storms is rubbernecking – the phenomenon where drivers slow down to gawk at a car accident, even though seconds before they were cursing out the cars in front of them for slowing down to do the exact same thing. But at its worst, this preoccupation with disasters feels as if we are not just mesmerized by their destructive force, but subconsciously rooting for the excitement of it all, as if the plight of others is another source of entertainment to compete with watching Bachelor reruns and scrolling through Instagram.
As a result, cable news ratings were way up for Hurricane Harvey, and those ratings will likely be dwarfed by Irma. News networks love a disaster, but they particularly love a disaster that looks great on television – blowing palm trees through the air. Hurricane Harvey will end up causing around $100 billion in damages, which sounds like a lot, until you realize that the student debt load in this country is a ten times larger catastrophe. Fortunately for institutions of higher learning and the scams they run, when Bryn Mawr hands out a worthless $100,000 masters degree in gender studies, the destruction isn’t as visually satisfying as a storm surge pulling a car into the sea. Re-negotiating NAFTA is important, but no matter what happens, it won’t be as exciting as thousands of alligators being let loose in residential neighborhoods.
And while the rise in cable news ratings is indicative of America’s love for a good disaster, it also highlights something else – while Fox News, CNN, and especially the Weather Channel saw a ratings bump, MSNBC, which focuses more exclusively on politics and recently rode Trump’s presidency to #1, saw its ratings actually decline.
The fact that ratings have diverged in such a way shows that cable news is not reporting Trump’s presidency in an objective manner backed by journalistic integrity. Instead, the media has employed the same disaster coverage tactics they’d learned from creating a panic for weather events ranging from tornadoes to snowmaggedon.
When the national media spends more than a week focusing on 100 racists with tiki torches, that’s the political version of the news team cutting to the storm reporter, dressed in a neon rain coat, strategically placed to display the maximum effect of the wind. When hundreds of television personalities dissect each Trump tweet as if it were an amendment to the constitution, that’s the equivalent of the correspondent wearing waders, sitting in a flooded street, gleefully explaining that “all this water is only going to get higher!”
The arrival of these natural disasters meant that the media-created disaster of Donald Trump was able to take a breather. For the first time in over a year, Trump was not the sole driver of CNN’s “Breaking News!” banner, or the topic of discussion from hundreds of talking heads. It hearkened back to the good old days when CNN was obsessed with that missing plane.
While this trend in political coverage may have deleterious effects on America long-term, at present, it makes sense to ask the same questions that are relevant to disaster porn. Why are so many people compelled to watch endless Trump coverage? Is it mere rubbernecking, that people are unable to take their eyes off the tweeting buffoon? Or, like the hurricane, is something more morbid in play? Are people addicted to the excitement? Do they hope to see an elected president impeached and convicted? His son tried with treason? Nuclear war with North Korea?
For many people, these fixations are based completely on altruism or genuine concern. But wouldn’t it be healthier if we all made a conscious effort to get our entertainment from fiction, and only tune into the news if they are offering objective, relevant facts about actual news?