Is Television Culture Making the Pandemic Worse?

How media find blame for the pandemic in every institution but their own.

Posted Aug 04, 2020

The US is currently experiencing a surge of COVID-19 infections. And TV news channels love it—in their own special way.

They’ve deployed reporters to every corner of the country where there are comfortable hotels. Found tragic individual stories to personalize the pandemic. Rustled up doctors to provide coverage to promote mask wearing as someone else’s opinion. They’ve wheeled in the usual commentators to support the bosses’ agendas: Politicians are to blame; or maybe it’s the ignorant, selfish populace; or the human instinct to congregate. There’s always the culture war over masking as performative election politics (or just our idiocracy on display). And don’t Americans have a right to frolic together? Leave it to others to bloviate about cost-benefits of having more infections versus more economic recovery. All good, acceptable news hooks.

We prefer the stories with simple statistical explanations: Polls show that about 30 percent of Americans aren’t particularly worried about COVID-19. That means a critical mass of Americans probably act as if there were no pandemic, a disaster given retransmission rates in the surge zones.  

But there’s another story that needs telling.

We do not hear about television’s role in forwarding the idea that the economy can and should be opened up. We don’t mean that TV news fails to accept its responsibility to report on the coronavirus, as muddled as that story is (and it would be difficult to tell the story in all its complexity). What is problematic is the failure of television journalists to acknowledge their own part in making a TV culture that fantasizes about a world without pandemics.

On television today, you still see an America that is a relatively safe and enjoyable place. The degree of sanguinity in that made-for-TV world depends on whether you’re watching local or national outlets, no matter their ideological bent. That’s because local TV news brings the pandemic closer to home. But all those outlets have in common a commercial business obligation to push a consumerist worldview through happy programming and aspirational advertising.

Think about this: The commercials, the peppy news presenters, and the happy talk show hosts are inventing a reality that is hallucinatory. People are dining out in commercials for restaurant chains! Shoppers are back in the malls in retail advertising! People are splashing in waves in travel advertising (what remains of it)! Breaking news: Kanye is at it again. Killer hornets, ya’ll.

We are in a pandemic. That’s the reality that insults television culture. SARS-CoV-2 tells us that the commercial advertising-based TV system is nothing but a sick joke. And commercials have always been about selling dream worlds and magical thinking. But none of this media-made reality reflects what we should be doing as citizens in this pandemic.

We have argued here before that the social contract of masking and distancing has been effective in reducing infections. Such a social contract derives from foundational thinking about freedom and politics—we must submit to social order in order to be free. That paradox has been at the center of Western political philosophy for the last 400 years.

Nobody has to tell us that stopping at a red traffic light is both a hindrance to our freedom and a nod to our social obligation to protect the lives of cross-traffic humans. We built a modern world with such rules and surveillance systems meant to nudge us toward conformity (though some have imagined the latter was invented for social control to benefit them). Such a social contract can internalize the habits of unfreedom that sustain a modicum of social peace. Call it an ethics of care for fellow humans. We’re not talking about violent suppression of freedoms or oppressive structures of power, but the mundane ways that help us keep our act together as a nation, as a collectivity.

But the libertarian ideals of American individualism are preserved like chicken in aspic in the commercial media worldview. We don’t need no stinkin’ masks because we woke up in a free country! Of course, that is just absurd, but its absurdity is depicted nonstop in commercial television, billboards, crazy radio ads, eccentric reality stars, and loner heroes. There’s not a single calm moment of reflection when an advert is telling us to get out and go shop, eat, exercise, and booze it up. Drinking has become the latest iconic image of living free and dying in America.

We know much about containing the virus, while we barely understand it. We are using 19th-century techniques of isolation, masking, hand-washing, and social distancing—the same “non-pharmaceutical interventions” used during 1918-19 flu pandemic, a fateful time that demanded the same social contract we are endorsing today. These behaviors work to flatten the curve, to minimize the threat of new outbreaks. But they are not a cure.

In the face of the global health crisis, a climate crisis, and world hunger and poverty, American TV culture continually loses the fight for truth. To be fair, it sometimes reports on those threats to humanity, but in a fragmented way, rather than as systemically interrelated failures of global capitalism. To do so would go against the interests of billionaire media owners and their millionaire news-reading celebrities. TV culture’s need for advertising income has made it a hungry beast, narrowly focused on its next meal. Until it can see that as a problem, it won’t recognize this fundamental inability to serve the public interest.  

To make matters worse, American media’s print journalism is being disabled by hedge fund and private equity managers. This is especially damaging to local newspapers, the traditional guardians of watchdog journalism. Since 2004, the US has lost almost “1,800 papers including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies.” Most are not coming back. The coronavirus has accelerated this trend, including decimating digital news sites.

Not surprisingly, American TV viewing and social media use have risen during the pandemic lockdown. This increases our exposure to the make-believe world of consumerism and misinformation, with an increased risk of magical thinking. But it also brings advertising costs down. Even advertisers affected by declining demand for their goods and services have mostly stayed the course with TV commercials, in order to maintain their presence and trigger a “memory effect” that can help drive consumers to their retail websites. That’s why we’re still seeing ads for airlines, even though such travel is contraindicated in a pandemic.

The result is a TV culture that resides in a pre-pandemic world, where the norm is social proximity, mask-less conviviality, cramped air travel, and the pursuit of happiness through hyper-consumption in public places.

What can we expect in the future from such a culture? We will not be surprised if there’s a new breathless routine of “breaking news” about hopeful vaccine trials, because that kind of news hook is better suited to happy commercial advertising than the truth about the stepwise scientific process for developing safe vaccines. And when they break for commercials, we’ll expect to see a lot of miracle drug ads from big pharmaceutical corporations, burnishing their brands in order to secure a commanding position in the coming vaccination gold rush. Too cynical? Maybe. But you probably won’t hear anyone talking about it in TV culture.