A recent large headline in the San Jose Mercury News got me thinking. The headline was, “A dire warning from the Governor”. (Online headline is different from the morning’s print headline.) From the story, “Schwarzenegger said … his threat … is necessary to prod lawmakers into swift action.”
I have to admit that even I rolled my eyes when I saw that — even though I understand how serious the problem is. And this led me to think that maybe there is a “crying wolf” factor at work here. This has been going on now or a long time.
A few months ago the crisis was reaching a breaking point, dire warnings were issued, and most importantly the public was starting to pay attention. This triggered the leadership in Sacramento to do what I think was the worst possible thing: they came up with the fluffy budget compromise that “solved” the crisis and resulted in the failed May 19 Special Election. I believe the compromise was a mistake that broke the tension and led people to believe that the “crisis” was over, so they tuned back out.
I think the “chicken little” aspect of the whole affair kept people away from the polls in droves.
I am not faulting the Governor and other state leaders for headlines like thos and other warnings because the crisis is real. Our leaders all need to do whatever it takes to get people to pay attention, to realize this budget crisis is real and that everything that can be cut has been cut, that they really are going to have to let people out of prisons and close parks and still will run out of money anyway. Bankruptcy and all of its consequences looms. For real. The public has to get involved and do their job in this democracy.
But I can understand why most Californians have tuned out. I think part of this budget problem is that it has become the norm to use drama and fear to prod others into action. And not just with the budget. There are so many terrible problems hitting us from so many directions. The economy really did collapse, and we may be on the edge of another Great Depression. For real. This has been a headline swarm for months. Swine flu is real, but is not as lethal as it first appeared it could be. This was the headline swarm a few weeks ago. And of course Global Warming is real, and serious. It has been a headline swarm for years.
Those are real and serious problems. But at the same time there are so many manipulative, well-funded and sophisticated PR campaigns, usually from corporate interests, that use fear and/or other manipulation. Remember the headlines warning aobut possible terrorist smallpox attacks? Remember being told that Iraq was on the verge of hitting us with nuclear weapons? Remember duct tape?
So people just do not know who to trust and necessarily are becoming immune to drama.
California’s big media outlets could do a better job of explaining the real problems facing the state, beginning by dispelling the idea that the state is just wasting taxpayer money and everything can be solved with a few painless budget cuts. They need to do this in a serious, respectful way, with comprehensive investigative reporting. If print media won’t do that, they should close their doors — they aren’t doing their jobs and aren’t helping anyone anymore so they should let their advertisers support a medium that helps democracy rather than hinders it. If broadcast media can’t do that, they should relinquish their broadcast licenses to others who will.
The poor, elderly and disabled have already suffered the cuts. They understand that this is for real. So maybe we need the crisis to hit home so (middle class) people can also understand that it is for real – this time.