It’s two o’clock on Wednesday afternoon and my brother and I are in his living room eating pizza. I’m on a diet and shouldn’t be carbo-loading, but the smell of pepperoni has overwhelmed my iron will.
“Thanks for watching the kid,” my brother says through a mouthful of crust and cheese. “I appreciate it.”
“No problem,” I reply. My younger sibling pulled an all-nighter at work and asked me to babysit so he could grab some sleep. As I chased my newly mobile nephew around the house, I could hear my brother’s snores sawing though the walls. He was wiped out. Now that he’s awake, he’s hungry.
“Want another slice?” my brother asks.
“No thanks,” I say, virtue reasserting itself. This far and no farther.
“So what’d you think about the swine flu thing?” my brother asks, scooping up another piece. As the baby watches his father eat he emits a squealing sound. I think he wants some.
“I get feverish just thinking about it,” I reply.
“And you flew back from California just as the news was breaking,”
“Yep. Cooped up in an aluminum tube breathing everybody’s recycled air.”
“Three days after I got home I spiked a 102 fever.”
“Scared the shit out of me.”
“I called my doctor and talked it over with him,” I continue. “Since I didn’t have any other symptoms he told me I must’ve had some other kind of bug.”
“So what happened?”
“A day of bed rest and fluids and I was right as rain.”
“But I was frightened,’ I say. “Movies like 28 Days Later and Outbreak have always freaked me out. And with the media acting like it was Epidemiological Armageddon and all…..”
“Made us think we were all gonna turn into blood sucking zombies,” my brother says.
“Yep,” I say. “Must have brains.”
“I’m pissed off at those guys,” my brother says.
“No, the media. They did a good job scaring people.”
“It’s all about ratings,” I say. “If it bleeds it leads.”
“But they went overboard,” my brother says. “We need to know about this stuff – but not have it in our face 24/7.”
“I went on a news boycott,” I say. “Now I just glance at the Times homepage to make sure we’re not being invaded by Canada. After that I don’t care.”
“Probably a good idea.”
“Remember when there was no 24 hour news?” I ask. “When the station’s would play the national anthem after Carson and then be off the air ’til morning? You got a break from all the world’s craziness.”
“Those days are dead and gone.”
“I think it’d be good to bring them back.”
“Then how about a lottery?” I say. “With the winner being the only news outfit allowed to broadcast 24 hours a day?”
“You’re talking billions of dollars here. And lots of people are news junkies.”
“There’d still be the internet.”
“Still won’t work.”
“How about a fight to the death?” I say.
“We take all the talking heads, throw them into a gladiator pit, and the last one standing wins the rights for his or her network to broadcast 24 hours a day.”
“That has possibilities.”
“Talking Head Deathmatch!”
“I like it.”
Who do think would win out?” I ask. “Keith Olbermann is a big guy.”
“I hate to say this,” my brother says. “But I’d put my money on Geraldo.”
“He’s street, man,” my brother says. “Probably gut Olbermann with a switchblade.”
“Hmmm. Glen Beck versus Rachel Maddow?”
“Beck would just start crying. Besides, Maddow could probably kick both our asses.”
“My money’d be on Lou Dobbs,” my brother says.
“His wife packs a gun? He packs a gun.”
“Blow Hannity and Colmes away?”
“In a heartbeat.”
“Watch out for Pat Buchanan though,” I say. “He’d probably show up with a tactical nuke.”
“Then no one would win,” my brother says.
“My point exactly.”
After the pizza’s finished and the diaper changing duties completed I head home – the conversation I had with my brother’s buzzing around my head. Things like mass outbreaks of disease give me the heebie-jeebies. I’ve seen the gravestones of relatives killed by the Spanish Flu of 1918. Families wiped out in mere days. It’s scary stuff and it’s always struck a dark chord in me. And all the hyper-news coverage hasn’t helped.
But I really don’t want media people to start killing each other. And, not to be a hypocrite, I’m also aware that I’ve benefitted from the largesse of that very same media this past year. One of the upsides of all my media coverage was that I got to make a few journalist friends along the way. Because of them I know there are newspeople who are responsible, balanced and fair. But in a medium where fact is often obscured by blowharded opinion, it’s tough to hear the truth amidst all the shrillness.
Sensationalism in the news, however, is an old tradition. Just look at Walter Winchell and William Randolph Hearst. Even Alexander Hamilton got in on the act with the New York Post. But please, when it comes to things like swine flu, give the hysterical, ratings crazed, blame-gaming opinionated bullshit a rest. We’re scared enough.
God, I miss Tim Russert.