We live in the golden age of panic

Coronavirus! Socialism! Sanders! Trump! Climate change! Climate change denial!
    We live, more than anything, in the golden age of panic. It’s all around us. Even if one is a fairly calm person, it’s all but impossible to get away from the panic of others.
    One thing that bears remembering is one of panic’s most disturbing qualities: It makes even the smartest person stupid.
    Panic has its uses, of course. If you’re out in the woods and a huge black bear is rushing toward you, panic is a perfectly normal, even useful, response. (But even then, as the old joke goes, you only need to run a little faster than whomever you’re with in that situation.)
    But we are seldom at risk of imminent harm. In most situations, we have time to think. The question is whether we take it.
    A big part of the age of panic is that people discovered a long time ago that panic is one of two things that always sells. (The other is sex, which is a whole other column, although not necessarily.)
    If you can not just scare people, but get them to act on that fear, their sales resistance plummets to pretty much nothing. In fact, there are whole businesses based on fomenting panic, like stores that cater to doomsday preppers. Jim Bakker, he of the old PTL club, was recently ordered to stop selling some sort of concoction he claims will protect people against coronavirus. Grifters gonna grift.
    It doesn’t have to be a physical threat that’s being sold, either. A lot of dubious financial products are sold to older folks worried about eating cat food in their retirement. One current, unintentionally hilarious TV commercial features Tom Selleck assuring people that the reverse mortgages he sold in earlier commercials are legitimate. He pretty much says “Hey, I’m not scamming you,” and when you have to say that, you’re probably scamming people.
    Panic isn’t always illegitimate. Given the scientific consensus, climate change really needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. It’s certainly worth debating how to do that and within what time frame, but despite what you hear, when something like 97 percent of scientists agree, the question is pretty much settled.
    Granted, even those who don’t directly benefit from selling panic also benefit, although in a sort of one-off way.
    That’s why the news media bears no small responsibility for the age of panic. If coronavirus, for example, ends up not being the threat it now appears to be, the news media will bear some responsibility for today’s panic. Obviously, they’re flogging the story because it attracts viewers and readers. They may be right that it’s panic-worthy, but if they’re wrong, media credibility is going to take yet another hit it can ill-afford.
    In fact, the media does that with less serious threats. When I lived in Oklahoma, if there even was a hint of a threat of a possibility of a chance of tornadoes, the local weather people went to DEFCON 1. Granted, part of their role is to warn viewers when a storm is coming, but it got so silly that Karon and I actually had an off-color name for the usual coverage.

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