Merchants of Fear

By L. Neil Smith

Presented to the Boulder County Libertarian Party
February 20, 1994

         Whatever else Americans may disagree about, everybody agrees about the mass media.
         We all know what we mean by the term "mass media" when we say it. What I mean by "mass media" is the aggregate of individuals involved at every level of production -- especially in the "news" departments -- of all television, virtually every newspaper, and most news magazines in America today. Like you, I have never been personally involved in any event that they managed to report correctly.
         Socialist Nick Nolte makes a movie about the mass media and they're unhesitatingly portrayed as illiterate, obnoxious slimeballs. Middle-of-the-roader Burt Reynolds makes a movie about the mass media and they're unhesitatingly portrayed as illiterate, obnoxious slimeballs. Conservative Bruce Willis makes a movie about the mass media and they're unhesitatingly portrayed as illiterate, obnoxious slimeballs. Fascist Clint Eastwood makes a movie about the mass media and they're unhesitatingly portrayed as illiterate, obnoxious slimeballs. Even libertarian John Milius makes a movie about the mass media and they're unhesitatingly portrayed as illiterate, obnoxious slimeballs.
         This is not news to the illiterate, obnoxious slime -- I mean, to the mass media. They tell themselves -- I've been there to hear them do it -- that it's a sign they're doing their job right. They're so painstakingly accurate, so minutely unbiased, that nobody benefits unfairly, and, as a natural consequence in this worst of all possible worlds, everybody hates them for it.
         The trouble with this otherwise comforting theory is that they never entertain the simpler and therefore likelier explanation that everybody hates them because it's unmistakable to anybody regardless of his prejudices -- especially anybody who's ever been one of their victims -- how very badly they do their job.
         The fact is that surveys which media people openly admit to show that fewer than twelve percent of their customers believe they're doing a good job, while the average profit margin in television is in the neighborhood of eighty percent.
         And besides, they're illiterate, obnoxious slimeballs.
         I've often wondered why this might be so, but I've never doubted that it is. Even in the North American Confederacy, the libertarian Utopia from my first novel, The Probability Broach, a wonderful universe that I built by hand in which the good-guys won the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, the government grew smaller and weaker from that moment forward, and, as a people, Americans never made another political mistake -- even in this best of all possible worlds, I realized instinctively that the mass media would be illiterate, obnoxious slimeballs.
         As I put it, more or less, in Forge of the Elders, the infamous two-book trilogy I wrote for Warner Communications that turned out so politically incorrect they unilaterally canceled the third volume: American journalism has always gloried in its self-appointed role as watchdog over the dignity and liberty of the individual. But the sad truth is, that during its long, self-congratulatory history, it's been a lot more like a cur, caught bloody-muzzled time after time, after time, savaging the very flocks it has been trusted to protect.
         I used to have a friend (the older I get, the more often I seem to find myself saying: "I used to have a friend") named Owen Lock, who was my first book editor at Random House. Owen would tell me, whenever I got upset because it seemed like certain people -- say, the mass media -- were colluding with various politicians to strip Americans of their fundamental rights, Owen would tell me I should consider another, simpler explanation. Over the years I've come to think of this as "Owen's Law" (because "Lock's Law" sounds like something you need to take shots for) and it goes like this: "Whenever it looks like a conspiracy, consider the possibility that it's only because they're stupid."
         Owen's Law has served me well over the years -- sometimes it's the only thing that's kept me sane -- although I can't say the same for Owen himself. The ninth book I wrote for him, Tom Paine Maru, turned out so politically incorrect he unilaterally removed forty pages from it, and that was the end of our association.
         Nevertheless, I think there's something to this idea, with regard to the mass media, that "it's only because they're stupid". Have you ever known anyone connected with television, newspapers, or news magazines who had an IQ higher than the last professional who cut your hair, or the average all-star wrestling fan?
         Of course it's always possible I'm being too harsh. Abysmal ignorance, although it really isn't the same thing at all, can often be mistaken for stupidity. The last professional who cut my hair, and practically any all-star wrestling fan, knows a lot more than the average individual in the mass media.
         Mass media people are a lot like public school teachers in this respect. The time and energy public school teachers might have wisely and profitably spent learning more about whatever it is they're supposed to be teaching -- like reading, writing, and arithmetic -- is wasted, instead, taking useless "education" courses.
         Likewise, the time and energy the average person in the mass media might have wisely and profitably spent learning anything about history, economics, political philosophy -- even logic -- is wasted taking "journalism". As any real newsman could tell you -- if there were any still alive -- "journalism" is something you learn in the newsroom, at the hands of those who learned it before you.
         Having considered both stupidity and ignorance as explanations for the repulsive state of the mass media today, however, I'm sorry to say that I find them both inadequate.
         Nobody could possibly be that stupid.
         Nobody could possibly be that ignorant.
         Which brings us to the subject of corruption.
         Corruption is not the same as conspiracy, you understand. Conspiracy is the act of conniving immorally or illegally with others to get your bread buttered. Corruption is simply knowing which side your bread is already buttered on.
         A few years ago a conservative think-tank scholar named James Buchanan won himself a Nobel Prize by demonstrating that bureaucrats and politicians are inclined to use the power they've been given to pursue their own self-interest rather than the public trust. Why this is supposed to have been such an unprecedented or eye-opening observation I've never quite understood, but that's what happened.
         However, Buchanan's thesis inspires us to consider just what constitutes the self-interest of people in the mass media. Maybe understanding that will help us understand them.
         First and foremost, the interests of the mass media lie with tragedy or calamity of any kind -- earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, avalanches, plagues -- intelligent, capable, and responsible men and women going to work every day to keep civilization running, feeding their families, and bringing their children up healthy and strong make lousy TV pictures or wire photographs.
         This was true, in principle, even when the government consisted merely of the police, the courts, and the army. With the rise of the modern welfare establishment, the mass media have begun to imitate the superstate, inexorably swelling in magnitude and influence by feeding on death and disaster, exactly as it does.
         In short, mass media people are the only creatures lower on the scale of evolution and fouler in their personal and public habits than the bureaucrats and politicians they report on. What they really want, deep down, is power, and -- although occasionally they'll single out one crippled bureaucrat or smelly old politician the way hyenas cull the sick and wounded from a herd of wildebeests -- they invariably suck up to those who already have what they want.
         It's called "symbiosis".
         People in the mass media tend more and more every day to look and act like elected and appointed officials. Remember that; it may be important later on.
         They've long since given up the task of telling us what's happening in the world and become merchants of fear instead, preaching at us incessantly -- for the sake of their corrupt, collusive partnership with the bureaucrats and politicians -- that the sky is about to fall on the backs of our unprotected necks, that we're all helplessly incompetent and our neighbors are criminally insane.
         Intelligent, capable, and responsible men and women going to work every day to keep civilization running, feeding their families, and bringing their children up healthy and strong inevitably make lousy welfare state politics, as well. Which explains why there's never really any good news, and why, if you watch television or read newspapers or magazines, life never seems to get any better.
         At all costs, the merchants of fear and their political symbionts must avoid the menace of solved problems which -- exactly like the embarrassment of intelligent, capable, and responsible men and women going to work every day to keep civilization running, feeding their families, and bringing their children up healthy and strong -- offer them nothing in the way of profit, politically or financially. They have to be careful, because there are solved problems everywhere they look.
         Violent crime is a solved problem -- all they have to do is repeal the laws that keep those intelligent, capable, and responsible men and women from arming themselves, and violent crime evaporates like dry ice on a hot summer day.
         Poverty is a solved problem -- all they have to do is abolish taxes and regulations which cripple those intelligent, capable, and responsible men and women and destroy their productive capacity, then stand back and watch the economy boom.
         Health care is a solved problem -- all they have to do is institute a Constitutional separation of medicine and state -- no, let's make it science and state -- and those intelligent, capable, and responsible men and women will make the price of health care plummet while the quality of health care soars.
         Drugs are a solved problem -- all they have to do is declare an end to the war on drugs -- U.S. OUT OF AMERICA! -- take the government-inflated profits out of the traffic, and watch the drug war's walking wounded gradually transform themselves back into intelligent, capable, and responsible men and women. And by the way, Rush, wrong again: from the time the first prehuman, down from the trees on the Serengeti Plain, decided to eat leopard instead of being eaten, morality has never been defined in any way except by individual choice.
         We all know it's true.
         We also know that what I said before is true -- that solved problems are a menace, offering no profit, politically or financially, to the merchants of fear or their political symbionts. Likewise, those intelligent, capable, and responsible men and women are a menace in and of themselves, offering the merchants of fear and their political symbionts neither clients nor victims. What does offer unlimited profit of both kinds is their daily calculated destruction of the Bill of Rights -- the only thing that keeps America from becoming the world's largest banana republic -- so that society will continue to shake itself to pieces, generating plenty of gory, colorful pictures for the cameras of the merchants of fear -- and plenty of unrestricted power for their political symbionts.
         Once again, it's called "symbiosis".
         So, what can we do about it? I'm here tonight to offer three or four answers to that question, and you can pick whatever you like best and put it to use.
         Here's answer number one:
         As a novelist, I have a somewhat higher soapbox to stand on than most people do when it comes to talking back to the merchants of fear. Yet it makes me just as mad when ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, and NPR not only lie consistently and blatantly about the individual right to own and carry weapons, but insert their lies into "news" broadcasts and programs billed as entertainment.
         It's been going on for decades. You know when a politician's lying -- his mouth moves -- but merchants of fear are capable of lying with a twitch of an eyebrow or the slant of a shoulder. They can load questions for the "man in the street" and get the public to lie for them. They can even lie by making sure that the badguy in a series episode has rifles and game trophies on his wall.
         The most infuriating part is that you don't get to talk back. They take full advantage of the fact that any amateur, offered a rare chance to be on TV, can easily be made to look foolish. Ask those who've tried: I give speeches where people laugh in all the right places and grown men have wept. The one occasion I tried replying to a TV editorial, I looked like Archie Bunker. Most antigun propaganda can't be dealt with this way anyway, because the merchants of fear are too dishonest to present it as a straightforward editorial.
         Since the Bill of Rights protects a broadcaster's freedom under the First Amendment to attack our freedom under the Second, the next thought that usually occurs to an irate viewer is to get back at the merchants of fear through their wallets, boycotting programs or their sponsors. I've never been impressed with this tactic. True, you deprive your enemy of his income; you also deprive yourself of whatever he produces, maybe something you really need. Sometimes it's worth the sacrifice, sometimes it isn't, and individual opinions always differ.
         The main problem is that for a boycott to be effective, you must first persuade thousands -- maybe even millions of others -- to go along, which is a lot of work and usually not successful. No matter what this country's self-appointed political and religious leaders claim, self-sacrifice has never been what America is all about, and it doesn't work as any kind of an incentive. Robert A. Heinlein put it best when he said it's pointless to appeal to someone's "better nature". He may not have one. Better to appeal to his self-interest.
         Which is where my thoughts had led me many times before (and dumped me out at what always seemed like the end of the line) when one day I happened to ask myself the right question for a change: if boycotts don't work, what's the opposite of a boycott? Obviously it isn't doing more business with your enemy. Then how about doing more business with whatever it is your enemy opposes?
         Call it a negative boycott.
         Since then, when I find myself subjected to anti-gun drivel disguised as "news" or "entertainment", I drop a quarter (or a dime, a nickel or a penny) into a coffee can I keep beside the chair where I watch TV. Given the rate at which such propaganda fills the air, it's no time at all before the can fills up. When enough money accumulates, I don't give it to the National Rifle Association or to any other organization whose policies I neither control nor necessarily approve. I spend it the best way I know, acquiring another gun I wouldn't otherwise have bought.
         Think about it.
         Another gun you wouldn't otherwise have bought.
         Many benefits can be generated this way with minimal effort and no pain at all. Appeal to the self-interest of enough gun owners, and hundreds of thousands -- maybe even millions -- of unforeseen gun purchases will occur. This will strengthen the firearms industry relative to the rest of the economy and even put some spine back into corporations that have taken the cowardly, historically discredited route of appeasing an oppressor. It didn't work with Adolf Hitler; why does Bill Ruger think it'll work with Hitler's spiritual kin, Howard Metzenbaum?
         Spotting anti-gun propaganda could make watching network TV interesting again -- which would be a minor miracle in itself -- and might even develop into an educational game for the whole family. Kids would learn what the public schools never teach and desperately don't want them to know: ways to identify logical fallacies, fuzzy or missing verbs, and improperly weighted qualifiers in otherwise authoritative- sounding arguments about homelessness, urban street gangs, acid rain, ozone depletion, global warming, and the War on Drugs.
         The primary effect will be felt by the merchants of fear as their own soapboxes slowly dissolve under their feet. Even now, each time the greatest sporting-goods sales team in America -- the perpetual antigun lobby -- open their mouths to push for new victim disarmament legislation, thousands of people go out and buy guns of all descriptions "before it's too late". It's what got me started back in 1967. Five years ago, a flurry of semiautomatic hysteria sold a quarter million weapons in Colorado alone. And we'll probably never know how many guns the Brady Bill and the assault rifle ban have placed in private hands.
         Until now, anti-gunners have encouraged the merchants of fear to keep the public ignorant of this interesting, inconvenient effect. But the merchants of fear are just like dishonest politicians -- they won't stay bought. The Great Gun Rush of 1994 was just too good a story to pass up. And now, as word of millions of coffee cans filling up with coins -- and suddenly being emptied -- gets around, an inexorable certainty that anti-gun propaganda causes more guns to be sold will put a damper on their enthusiasm to saturate the air with lies.
         The best part (and most frustrating from the other side's point of view) is that nobody is in a position to think, speak, or act for you. It's your TV, your chair, your coffee can. You're the only judge of what constitutes anti-gun propaganda. You decide how much to drop in the can. You're the ultimate beneficiary.
         But wait, there's more.
         Here's answer number two:
         Everybody here will remember the way the state of Florida made it easier several years ago -- despite all sorts of hysteria from the merchants of fear -- for intelligent, capable, and responsible men and women to carry a concealed weapon for self-defense: over a period when violent crime rose thirty percent in America, it fell ten percent in Florida, for an aggregate drop of forty percent.
         It's an axiom among street-level law enforcement that you can't really eradicate crime, you can only move it. Some believe that using "The Club" gave rise to carjacking. Muggers in Florida began to pick on foreigners and out-of-staters because they were afraid that their domestic victims might be armed.
         Merchants of fear, desperate to discredit the principle of individual self-defense, treated these incidents, no more than a dozen in all, as if they were a crime wave (during the same period, several times that number of foreigners were mugged in New York City) while failing to report the real drop in Florida crime.
         This politically selective reportage of Florida crime gave me an idea -- why not do exactly the same thing to the merchants of fear? Over the past couple of decades, several organizations have been formed to monitor them -- Accuracy in Media comes to mind -- and yet the situation hasn't gotten any better.
         What if a widespread group of individuals (there are National Rifle Association chapters in practically every county in America, after all, and Libertarian Party organizations in every state) began gathering local reports of misconduct by members of the mass media -- everything from running a stop sign to murder -- and issuing national press releases about them? What if statistical records were disseminated by a "media information clearing house" that treated the merchants of fear disproportionately and inappropriately -- made them all appear to be criminals or potential criminals -- just the way they treat gun us?
         But wait, there's still more.
         Here's answer number three:
         Some years ago, there was a series of debates on college campuses all over the country between arch-ultra-conservative G. Gordon Liddy, and semi-quasi-libertarian Timothy Leary. To my eternal regret I never saw any of these debates and I don't know what points this pair of historic titans argued, but I understand they were a lot of fun, everybody involved made some money, and the debates themselves were completely phony -- that Liddy and Leary, in fact, became fast friends who found less and less to disagree about as time went on.
         It makes a great story, anyway.
         I don't know whether the story is true or false, but thinking about it gave me an idea. Even before the recent elevation of Channel 9's assistant news director Butch Montoya to the position of Denver's manager of public safety, I was prepared to point out that individuals in the mass media see themselves as keepers of the public trust -- at least they used to talk about that a lot -- and that the corporations they work for, like all corporations, enjoy special powers and immunities by virtue of incorporation that raise them above the level of mere mortals like you and me and make them virtually an arm of the government.
         "Virtually an arm of the government" -- that ought to tell us something, right there. Individuals who work for government customarily take a binding oath to "uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic". It's expected of them. In fact, they're compelled by the law to do so.
         "Compelled by the law" -- there's another phrase to conjure with, unless I'm greatly mistaken. If the merchants of fear were compelled by the law to take a binding oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, and if they were held to it stringently, if it were enforced, the American mass media -- television, newspapers, and news magazines -- would be completely unrecognizable within a week and no Democrat (and damn few Republicans) would ever be elected to office in this country again.
         Now understand me when I say that, as libertarians, as members of the Libertarian Party, we would be morally and politically obligated to oppose such an idea, as an infringement of the First Amendment, but that it would be highly likely to find considerable support among our conservative fellow-travelers.
         Like G. Gordon Liddy, to name a random example.
         So thoroughly would we libertarians oppose such an idea -- and I must say I'm surprised and shocked at myself for having thought of it -- that it would probably be necessary to hold well-publicized debates, perhaps even on local-access cable television, in each of the fifty-two or -three states and territories in which libertarians are organized and on the ballot, and maybe even in the hundreds of cities and counties where there are Libertarian Parties, to wit:
         "Resolved that all individuals involved at every level of production in the mass media be compelled by the law to take a binding oath, stringently enforced, to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic."
         Maybe we could even get William F. Buckley interested in sponsoring this revolutionary proposition as one of his Firing Line debates. Naturally, as Bill of Rights and First Amendment-fearing citizens, we libertarians would take the negative. Our conservative fellow-travellers would take the affirmative.
         Both sides would win.
         The merchants of fear would lose.
         But wait, there's still more.
         Here's answer number four:
         Our conservative fellow-travellers say that we're presently engaged in a "culture war" with the liberal northeast, and I agree. The trouble is, you can't expect to win a snowball fight without snowballs; the other side has more ammunition -- or greater respect for its ammunition supply -- than ours does.
         My current novel, Pallas, is all about that culture war -- in fact it's been called the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the Sagebrush Rebellion -- and yet what I hear all too often from libertarians is that they don't read fiction. And what I hear all too often from our conservative fellow-travellers is that they don't read at all.
         In order to fight a culture war, you gotta have culture. Believe me, history demonstrates that fiction inspires people to act in a way that non-fiction cannot. Uncle Tom's Cabin ended slavery in America; Rocketship Galileo put Americans on the Moon; Atlas Shrugged created the modern libertarian movement. Fiction tells truths that are more profound -- or at least it tells the truth more profoundly than non-fiction. First thing tomorrow morning, call Laissez Faire at 1-800-326- 0996 and get their catalog. Buy as many of my books as possible -- see, I know which side my bread is buttered on, too -- and check out the works of a dozen other libertarian novelists in print.
         Don't let our conservative fellow-travellers have a monopoly on talk radio. If you want to do something simple, call the program director of every radio station you can receive, once a week for the next six months, and tell them they need to put a libertarian on the air. You may mention my name if you wish.
         Politically, we are living through unprecedentedly terrible times -- times when the government can murder a hundred people, a dozen of them children, in broad daylight on national television, and not only get away with it, but put the surviving victims on trial. But because of that, we are also living in times of tremendous opportunity. If libertarians -- as a movement and as a culture -- fail to take advantage of them, it will be nobody's fault but our own.
         Thank you.

Permission to redistribute this article is herewith granted by the author, provided that it is reproduced unedited, in its entirety, and appropriate credit given.

Talk to me!:

Back to L. Neil Smith's Speeches Page