Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
The Nonsense News Index
By David G. Young
Washington, DC, September 2, 2003 --
What ever happened to that epidemic of shark attacks? It was two years ago today that a boy fell victim on a sandbar off Virginia Beach, one of many incidents fueling a media frenzy popularly called "the summer of the shark."1 The overly hyped coverage inspired silly official commissions such as the "Virginia Shark Attack Task Force."2 News accounts featured shockingly graphic interviews with horrified eyewitnesses. Only occasionally did voices of reason emerge from scientific experts, who begged people to understand that shark attacks are rare, and that the frequency of them in 2001 was not unusual by historical standards.
But the voices of reason were not heeded. A few days later, on September 6, 2001, coincidence saw to it that another man was attacked just down the coast in North Carolina. This sent the "summer of the shark" story to incredible heights.3
Four days later, all the shark nonsense and hype came to an abrupt end, falling along with the towers in downtown Manhattan. Nonsense news quickly went into a great hibernation. Americans who had shunned world news coverage for years began to learn the names of countries where residents hated America so bitterly as to murder its citizens by the thousands. The next 20 months featured almost nonstop coverage of war, terrorism, and war again. Aside from a few weird news shorts, nonsense coverage was definitely off of the table.
This was an amazing change. Consider the frivolity of stories that gripped America in the 1990s. The Monica Lewinsky scandal went on for years, giving the public such presidential howlers as "It depends on what the meaning of the word is is." The O.J. Simpson trial, an earlier hype-fest, lasted nearly as long. Its silly omnipresence highlighted that America was at the peak of its security and prosperity, and therefore able to afford the distracting mass consumption of nonsense news.
In recent months, much of the press coverage has focused on the occupation of Iraq. But along with depressing stories about looting, guerrilla attacks and collapsed Iraqi infrastructure is a hopeful sign: nonsense news has returned.
This summer's front pages have featured such mind-numbing foolishness as the Kobe Bryant case, the spread of West Nile infected mosquitoes, and the granddaddy of this year's nonsense news, the California recall election. What better way for Americans to climb out of their national funk than by enjoying the circus antics of an Austrian bodybuilder, an aging, pint-sized, unemployed child star, a porno queen, and a Chicano supremacist?
For much of the past decade, America enjoyed an unprecedented period of economic growth, as its people filled their minds with nonsense. Now that two years of post-September 11th fear and economic stagnation appear to be turning around, frivolous news has returned. That Americans are gorging themselves on this all-you-can-eat buffet of utterly unredeeming news suggests the next economic boom may be just around the corner.
This begs the question of adding a new item to the list of leading economic indicators. Along with housing starts, new unemployment claims, and interest rate spread, there is an urgent need for a nonsense news index. It would be measured as a percentage of frivolous articles on the front page of America's major dailies. A front-page report of such an index could itself be a welcome presence -- if deemed frivolous by skeptical economists, stories about the nonsense index would allow it to feed on itself, thereby elevating the American economy!
If this all goes well, the Americans now returning from Labor Day vacations will face better times next year. With an elevated nonsense news index, beach resorts will be flush with money by Labor Day 2004 -- not a minute too soon for expensive shark prevention campaigns.
1. CNN, Boy Dies After Shark Attack, September 2, 2001
2. Virginia Shark Attack Task Force Report, December, 2001
3. CNN, Labor Day Shark Attack Survivor Hanging On, September 5, 2001