Jon Benet Ramsey And The Commodification Of Fear

There’s no real shock here. Since John Karr’s DNA didn’t match the DNA found at the scene of Jon Benet Ramsey’s murder, he won’t be charged with the offense. But this story shows us the intensity of public curiosity and anxiety that bubbles just beneath the surface. It’s almost possible to imagine a near-bankrupt media magnate, desperate to raise advertising revenue, creating a John Karr character simply to milk an existing story for a little more cash. (Smell a movie script here?) The Jon Benet narrative is like a natural resource. It was stored in our memory,virtually inert, until John Karr unleashed the expolosive power of our pent-up curiousity and anxiety. How many other stories are just waiting for re-ignition?

I suppose it seems strange to commodify crime and other horrors, but one thing’s for sure: somebody made money off John Karr this past week, and it’s not hard to figure out who. The same people who dread, yet will thrive upon, the next terrorist attack. Why wait, though? Pent up anxiety spells pent up revenue. No surprise, then, that outlets like CNN and Fox News routinely try to tap into our latent fears in order to immediately access some of the advertising dollars that would otherwise flow to the 195 other networks on our digital dial.

Since you can’t count on the likes of John Karr every day, a good media business will facilitate a more routine release of fear. Fear music, fear voice, fear font. Jon Stewart got that right. (Video link.)

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2 Responses

  1. Frank says:

    Absolutely right. Howard Kurtz backs up your concern about the issue here.

  2. rick swedloff says:

    As more proof of your theory: there is a piece on “This American Life” about a four hour “slow-speed-car-chase.” At the end of the chase, the police had given up, but a local news station continued to follow the car. For the entire chase, the “suspect drove under the speed limit, obeyed all traffic laws, signaled every time he wanted to turn.” Apparently the news station got 400% bump in ratings whenever they covered a car chase.

    If you care to listen: The story is Act I of episode 248, which aired on 10/24/03.