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All The News That Fits, We Print!!

May 2, 2009

I have a friend who is an attorney. He is well educated and socially adept. You would think he needs to know what is happening in the world just to be successful as an lawyer. But, he doesn’t receive or read the newspaper nor does he follow the news in any way. When I asked him about it, he said, “Bruce, if it doesn’t happen in the immediate block where I live, it won’t affect me.”

For years, I thought his narrow worldview was ludicrous. However, as I get older, I am beginning to think he is right. With so much air time, Internet space, and newspaper inches to fill these days, reporters, bloggers, and tweeters, are desperate for something to call “news.”  What might have filled 30 seconds on the “Nightly News” with Chet and David in the 60’s and 70’s, is now hashed over for minutes, hours, days, and sometimes weeks by 24 hour news channels and more.

The most recent example of this hyper hype is the Swine Flu. Over the past week or so, the story has swelled to pandemic proportions. Even though I am cynical about stories like this, the hype got to me and I purchased gallon sized containers of hand sterilizer to put in my store. Like me, school boards got antsy and closed whole school districts based on nothing more than a sneeze. Even our Vice-president, who everyone agrees is affected with hoof-in-mouth disease, advised Americans not to travel in airplanes or go shopping. (His staff quickly redacted his comments into something less terrifying). Our local weatherman kicked up a kerfluffle by announcing he was afraid to eat avocados because they come from Mexico.

Starting last night, it looks like our common sense finally kicked in. We began to see news stories reporting that 36,000 Americans die of the flu annually while only one person has died of Swine Flu in the United States so far. Other reports are saying DNA results show Swine Flu to be much less virulent than the 1916 strain that killed over 50,000,000 people. It may be even less powerful than the typical flu we see yearly. After so many dire reports, one has to wonder how could we have gotten it so wrong?

It all goes back to the huge need for content when news is published 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. CNN repeats its major news stories every 30 minutes. Our local television stations have three half hour shows to fill from the late afternoon until the late evening news. All three airings are pretty much a repeat of news from the first show. By the time I read the morning newspaper, it is stale because I have heard the same items on “Good Morning, America.” No one had time to check the facts, they only had time to report what someone else had reported as the facts.

Let me ask you, “Did you or anyone you know get the flu in the past week? Did you see any death wagons rolling through your neighborhood asking you to bring out your dead? Did the predicted apocalypse occur in the middle of the night?” No, none of that happened! What did happen, though is all of us were exposed to the “boy who cried wolf” yet again.

In its worse form, the “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me” syndrome hit New Orleans the weekend of August 29, 2005. as Hurricane Katrina approached, news broadcasts were billing it as the largest hurricane ever seen and predicting unimaginable damage. Public officials were telling people in New Orleans to evacuate. Yet, thousands of people stayed and eventually were stranded by unprecedented flooding. Why? Because we had heard it all before; had left before; had bought cases and cases of bottled water before, only to have the storm miss us or be much less powerful than predicted. The “news” had lost its credibility.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Bruce, this blog is supposed to be about a retailer’s view of the industry. What does this vitriol about the news have to do with selling chaise lounges?” I contend that years from now we will look back at “The Great Recession of 2009” and wonder what all the fuss was about. Look, I am not Polyanna, and I understand unemployment is severe in areas, but there have been much worse economic disasters in the past. Yet the 24-hour news convinced us we were steps from the greatest financial disaster mankind has ever seen. And the news became self-fulfilling. People stopped shopping even though most of them had not lost their job, taken a pay cut, or lost money in the stock market. My business and yours was adversely affected by the insatiable need for news whether it was news or not.

We have become a nation of cattle being feed news by the media who throw it in a pattern to lead us anywhere they want . . . usually higher ratings. I may never become exactly like my lawyer friend. I still read the newspaper in the morning, but I have begun tuning away from the news in my car. I now listen to show tunes and the comedy channels on Sirius. Instead of watching two nightly television news broadcasts, I watch a little of one and have become addicted to “Deal or No Deal.” I want my entertainment to look like entertainment rather than being passed off as news.

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce