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The Media Is Bumming People Out. That’s Intentional

Legacy media’s new favorite beat is doomerism, driving outrage clicks on the defeatist idea that none of us can do anything to improve the state of the world.

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The world is on fire. Our system of governing is broken. Covid is on the rise again. Poverty is skyrocketing. Coral reefs are collapsing, the Earth is quaking, and flood waters are rising in arid climates. Librarians are fielding bomb threats over children’s books. Migrants are dying on razor wire hidden in rivers. People are being murdered by police who laugh about their deaths on camera.

And there’s nothing that can be done about any of it.

That’s the core message of a new cottage industry: Doomerism.

In newspaper and magazine commentary, in the words of TV pundits and the jibes of late-night comedians, the chatter of talk-radio hosts and the video snippets of influencers, the guiding principle of How Things Are is that they are terrible and will never change.

Consider: There has never been a greater focus on changing the world than the one going on right now regarding climate change. Activists around the globe are engaged in action, cleaning up pollution, fighting for pro-environment political candidates, and filling the streets with demonstrations to save the Earth.

All of this is happening as the undeniable evidence of humanity’s effect on the climate is mounting. Parents drive their children to school through smoke from wildfires from other countries. Beach towns are washed away in tsunamis and farm fields roast under drought. Every day, people lose their homes, their jobs, and their lives to the rage of the elements we’ve provoked through centuries of environmental degradation.

No one understands that better than climate activists and their allies, and they haven’t given up on their cause. They need all the help they can get in imagining new ways of doing everything from growing food to building shelter.

But for a half decade, news organizations have been beating a defeatist drum,after years of burying coverage of the oncoming climate disaster in their back pages. Their focus now makes audiences feel powerless to do anything to save the planet.

In 2018, The New York Times called the 1980s “the decade we almost stopped climate change,” implying the effort was utterly lost more than 30 years back. Stories about climate “tipping points” inevitably mention that the point of no return has passed long ago, basically telling audiences it’s all hopeless.

“Not only does the collapse of modern industrial civilization appear ever more likely, but the process already seems underway,” wrote Michael Klare, for The Nation.

“There’s no escaping” climate change declared The Washington Post.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy grimly reported, “America’s foundations have poured billions of dollars into the fight against climate change. What do they have to show for their money?”

When they’re not telling their readers and viewers that we’re all going to die, editors and producers are eliding the causes of worsening climate conditions.

News sources cite partisan gridlock” and “polarized politics as reasons for the lack of significant policy changes. As Republican representatives block meaningful legislation and fight any effort to make businesses responsible for the trauma they cause to the Earth, mainstream pundits run for cover by characterizing GOP vandalism as “congressional inaction.”

Politicians who actually care about global warming are engaged in “culture wars” and “virtue signaling” and other dismissive phrases that imply their work is futile or performative. “Washington is broken,” our op-ed writers lament, never saying who broke it, or how they profited, or why.

Republicans are marching in lockstep to cook the surface of the Earth, shouting at their rallies that giant gas-burning trucks and factory farming must be preserved at all costs lest America’s patriotic glory wane. The one or two Democrats with misgivings about shutting down coal mines don’t “balance” an entire party’s agenda. But saying that outright, and clearly identifying the party at the root of all this partisanship, seems beyond the moral courage of the corporate press.

Doomsday coverage has real consequences: As one response to the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s fatalistic article noted, it’s hard to convince major funding institutions and governments to try to change a story when they think they know the ending. The more the idea that the planet is dead settles into popular narrative, the less likely it will be that anything can be done to stop it.

That’s a terrible message to send to the young activists growing up amid hurricanes and heat waves. They’re hearing this glib apathy on TV and reading it in newspapers and the influencers they follow are echoing the it’s-all-over sentiment on social media, which rewards nothing so much as a cynical hot take.

The most woeful and pessimistic statements get viral fame, no matter how unfair they are:

This doomerist mindset isn’t just limited to climate change. It has infested itself in the fight for democracy in the face of relentless authoritarian assault. Voting for Democratic candidates at every level of government is the only way to preserve free and fair elections in the future, but you wouldn’t know that from reading stories that mock participation in elections.

Why You Can’t Out-Organize Voter Suppression lectured the Huffington Post, quoting Democratic allies, saying that “we cannot and should not have to organize our way out of the attacks and restrictions on voting that lawmakers are passing and proposing at the state level.”

The overwhelming message—on abortion, civil rights for Black, brown, and LGBTQ people, gun control, student loan forgiveness, education, the future of democracy itself—is that you shouldn’t even bother anymore. It’s become a trademark of political commentary to view everything as a big ironic joke, one in which the commenter shows world-weary savvy by informing their audience that they’re smart enough to give up.

After all, if nothing can be changed, then why bother trying to fight it?

Consuming the news through a lens this dark literally breaks audiences’ brains. Harvard researchers working post-pandemic found that while people paid close attention to stories of misery, they also grew numb to the news, coming to expect horror shows from their TVs and phones. 

A recent survey from the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and NPR found that reading, watching, or listening to negative news is one of the leading causes of stress among Americans,” reported The Greater Good magazine. “Research suggests that people who consume negative news regularly also tend to have less trust in political leaders, lower evaluations of other people and communities, and more psychological problems.

Some of the cynicism is a show, of course, a way to garner attention. But professional journalists and columnists should hold themselves to a higher standard than aspiring shitposters venting to their Instagram followers.

Their narrative of despair actively helps the right-wing politicians responsible for the current state of affairs. It helps bad actors who are ruining things for money keep doing it. It helps keep them in power because people are convinced voting them out won’t change anything.

If “Washington” is broken, if “Congress” is “bickering,” then no one’s really to blame.

But if House and Senate Republicans are deliberately blocking action on student loans forgiveness, gun violence prevention, abortion access, and actual climate change legislation, then there is a way to fix these supposedly unfixable problems. If a handful of individual legislators can be influenced or replaced, then there’s work to be done.

And that work begins with countering this doomerism, no matter how much the media world rewards a story of complacency.

Responsible journalism would state that clearly and provide a road map to solutions. If the world really is on fire, the media’s role must be to break the glass separating us from the fire extinguishers instead of despairingly describing the flames.

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