It’s all about playing it safe. Which is why you can find a warning label on a fish hook that reads “Harmful if swallowed.” It’s also why the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announces 350 product recalls per year. Some are good moves. I’m glad that exploding toasters have been taken off the market. Frankly, I’m happy most exploding items are off the shelves. But then there’s the recliner recalled because it had a screw protruding from the bottom. While there have been “no reports of injuries to humans,” according to the CPSC, there was “one report of a dog’s fur becoming entangled in the screw.”
“Woof!” That’s doggie for “Even I doubt this product needs a recall.”
But thanks to our lawsuit-crazy world, companies actually embrace recalls as cover: “You can’t sue us for the stupid screw, because we already warned you about the stupid screw when we recalled the stupid chair.”
The Overreaction: Overeager Newscasts Jump to Conclusions
Don’t blame just the lawyers. Save some scorn for the media because we … I mean, they! … willingly play along. “The danger in your den—details at 11!” warns the TV announcer as you glance around warily. And then, eight commercials later, the danger turns out to be … a recliner with a screw sticking out of the bottom!
Given that we are living in what Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, insists is the safest time in human history, the news gins up things to hold on to its viewers. “Up next: Food supply safe, criminals behind bars, and all escaped pythons accounted for!” doesn’t get a news director promoted. Which is why, when my friend worked at a TV station in Philadelphia a few years back, and there was a shooting in early June, her news director ordered a banner to splash across the broadcast, “Summer of Violence!”
“Uh … it’s still June,” my friend pointed out. “We have no idea what July and August will be like.” Too bad. One murder, and Summer of Violence it was, followed by Fall of Fatalities, Winter of Weird Weather, and Spring of Serial Killing Barber Poles.
Even when the news is pretending to assuage fears, it finds ways to fan them, by saying something like “While most blindness is not caused by fork impalement …,” and suddenly you’re eating steak with a spoon. How’s this for passive-aggressive “calming”? Last year, after a 23-year-old New Yorker was reunited with the parents she’d been stolen from as a newborn, CNN assured folks that baby snatching is “extremely rare” and then immediately ran the story “How to Guard Against Baby Snatchers.” CNN went on to report that there was one baby taken from a health-care facility in 2010—out of 4,300,000 births. But the station couldn’t help itself. It warned all new moms to beware of nurses because they could be baby snatchers in disguise.
So now you’ve just given birth, you’re lying in the hospital, and you’re supposed to suspect that every woman who comes in to take your temperature really wants to take your baby? Well, yes, if you buy into this Shark Week world we’re swimming in. If it’s a tragedy, it could happen to you. If it’s a mistake, it could happen again. If it’s a shark, it could be lurking in your local pool.
In New York recently, there were billboards that showed a woman wincing in pain. “Maybe it’s a canker sore,” read the headline. “But maybe it’s cancer.”
Yeah, but maybe it’s a canker sore.