From William Randolph Hearst's ginned up hysterical stories about marijuana to the "10-cent plague" comic book scare of the 1950s to The New York Times warning of "cocaine-crazed Negroes" raping white women across the Southern countryside, the media has always whipped up anxiety and increased readership via thinly sourced exposes of the next great threat to the American way of life.
And since the British sociologist Stanley Cohen defined the moral panic phenomenon in the early 1970s as hysterical overreactions to imagined threats to social order, no publication has done a better (by which we mean worse) job of scaring the crap out of post-baby boomer America than Time, the top-selling newsweekly that's dropping subscribers like the mythical meth mouth drops teeth. (Hot tip to Time: If you're looking for a cutting-edge panic to get those ad rates up again, we hear people have been freaking out about "sexting" lately.)
Why So Worried? Time warns that bizarre occult rituals involving black-draped altars, flashes of fire, and "goat-shaped images superimposed on purple pentagram[s]" are "being re-enacted all across the U.S. nowadays." The article describes "sex clubs that embellish their orgies with Satanist rituals," takes note of the Satanic followers of Charles Manson, and recounts two anecdotal news stories about a grave robbery and an alleged stabbing inspired by Lucifer.
Cue Ominous Music: "There is a danger…in taking the Devil too lightly, for in doing so man might take evil too lightly as well. Recent history has shown terrifyingly enough that the demonic lies barely beneath the surface, ready to catch men unawares with new and more horrible manifestations."
Oh, Just Settle Down: Time's warning that devil worship was sweeping the country was short on supporting evidence. While exact figures are difficult to come by, most estimates put America's satanist population in the range of 10,000-20,000 people. The 1980s saw an explosion not of Wiccans and sorcerers, but of evangelical Protestants. But that only fueled the fear of Mephistopheles, as the decade saw America overcome by scares over the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, Satanic messages inscribed backward on heavy metal albums, and the persistent urban legend about the satanist origins of Procter & Gamble's corporate logo. In the early 1980s, a "Satanic ritual abuse" (SRA) panic swept America and Europe, during which Christian fundamentalists and repressed memory psychiatrists claimed Satanist cults were subjecting children to animal sacrifice, scatology, sexual abuse, and murder. Dozens of questionable prosecutions followed, including the infamous 1984 McMartin preschool molestation trials, in which seven people were charged with 321 counts of child abuse based only on questionable memories psychiatrists claimed to have recovered from children who attended the school. Subsequent studies showed the SRA phenomenon to be without merit.
9. April 5, 1976: The Porno Plague
Why So Worried? Porn, Time says, is sweeping the country, leaving our deflowered Puritan sensibilities in its wake. "The First Amendment may safeguard the rights of pornographers and their audience," the magazine posits, "but surely the majority of Americans who find porn objectionable have rights as well. Must they and their children be under constant assault by the hucksters of porn?"
Cue Ominous Music: The article quotes U.C.L.A. psychiatrist Robert J. Stoller, author of Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred, who warns that porn "'disperses rage' that might tear society apart, but also threatens society by serving as propaganda for the unleashing of sexual hostility."
Oh, Just Settle Down: Time was right about the increase in production and availability of pornography in the 1970s, it was just wrong about the effects. Two years after this cover appeared, the number of reported rapes in the U.S. began a 30-year free-fall, a period over which pornography became increasingly easier to obtain. Today, porn is more abundant and ubiquitous than ever, while incidence of rape in the U.S. is at its lowest rate since the government started keeping statistics.
8. August 6, 1984: The Population Curse
Why So Worried? Using an upcoming U.N. conference in Mexico City as its hook, Time engages in some Paul Ehrlich-style doom-mongering about overpopulation.
Cue Ominous Music: "The consequences of a failure to bring the world's population growth under control are frightening. They could include widespread hunger and joblessness, accompanied by environmental devastation and cancerous urban growth. Politically, the outcome could be heightened global instability, violence and authoritarianism."
Oh, Just Settle Down: Since Time's 1984 cover story, the world's population has increased from 4.75 billion to 6.78 billion people. This year, the World Bank's Poverty Analysis reported, "Living standards have risen dramatically over the last decades. The proportion of the developing world's population living in extreme economic poverty…has fallen from 52 percent in 1981 to 26 percent in 2005…. Infant mortality rates in low- and middle-income countries have fallen from 87 per 1,000 live births in 1980 to 54 in 2006. Life expectancy in [low and middle-income] countries has risen from 60 to 66 between 1980 and 2006." According to the peace advocacy group Ploughshares, the number of armed conflicts across the globe has generally been in decline since the mid-1990s (PDF). As for "authoritarianism," with the fall of the Soviet empire, a far greater percentage of the global population lived under such regimes in 1984 than do today. Even the massive population in China is freer (if not actually "free") than it was in 1984.
7. September 15, 1986: Drugs: The Enemy Within
Why So Worried? This Time cover story simultaneously fans the flames of drug war hysteria while acknowledging it may not be all it's…er…cracked up to be. The article admits that a vanishingly small number of people actually die of cocaine overdoses (just 563 in 1983, out of tens of millions of users), yet still refers to the drug as a "taker of lives." After suggesting that the country might be overreacting to drug use and acknowledging the drug war causes far more problems than it helps, the article concludes, "If Americans are willing to say clearly—to their workmates and schoolmates, to their neighbors and friends, to their communities and to themselves—that drug use is not acceptable…then even all the hype and excess may in retrospect be worthwhile." No, Time, it wasn't.
Cue Ominous Music: "To a nation that espouses self-reliance, drug dependence has emerged as the dark side of the American character, the price of freedom to fail. It is as if America, so vain and self-consciously fit, has looked upon itself and suddenly seen the hideously consumptive portrait of Dorian Gray. The country, it seems, is awash with drugs. Fine white powder pours past the border patrol like sand through a sieve. On busy street corners and in urban parks, pushers murmur, 'Crack it up, crack it up,' like some kind of evil incantation, bewitching susceptible kids and threatening society's sense of order and security."
Oh, Just Settle down: Overall use of illicit drugs has largely remained constant over the years, though individual drugs go in and out of vogue. Crack in particular was singled out in the late '80s; Time called it "the most virulent" form of drug abuse, while one expert quoted in a similar Newsweek article called it "the most addictive drug known to man." As Reason's Jacob Sullum explains in his book Saying Yes, studies show that the vast majority of crack users never went on to become addicts. One 1994 survey, for example, showed that 93 percent of respondents who had admitted to trying crack weren't using the allegedly instantaneously addictive drug as much as once a month when the survey was taken. Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman even theorzied in the Wall Street Journal that it's actually the prohibition of cocaine that gave us drugs like crack, likening the intoxicant to the bathtub gin that soaked the black market during alcohol prohibition.
More to the point, drug scare stories like this one—and Time has run a number of them over the years (see, for example, this one about Ecstasy, also mostly overblown)—have contributed to mass public panics that gave us the nation's odious drug laws, which while producing mass collateral damage, have had little effect on the actual drug supply.
6. May 7, 1990: Dirty Words
Why So Worried? Citing gangsta rap and heavy metal lyrics, raunchy comedians, and radio shock jocks, Time worries that American pop culture has grown too vulgar. The "new crude," Time frets, is different from the old crude of people like Lenny Bruce, because the new crude has no redeeming social message. "Today's sex talk…is almost exclusively from the male-pig viewpoint," the magazine scolds, and it features ample helpings of racism, homophobia, and other bigotry.
Cue Ominous Music: Time quotes a woman who says that after sitting through a comedy routine by Andrew "Dice" Clay, "she felt like a Jew at the 1934 Nuremberg rally."
Oh, Just Settle Down: The Time story offered no actual data that America was getting cruder, much less that it's anything to worry about. Andrew "Dice" Clay, the article's main bogeyman, was last seen getting tossed from Donald Trump's reality show for D-list celebrities. That doesn't mean American society has gone PG. But it's hard to argue that pop culture's comfort with bad language is anything to fret about. Since the Time article ran in 1990, nearly every measurable social indicator has been moving in the right direction, from youth crime to sex crime to teen pregnancy. America has largely grown more tolerant, too, even as ethnic, sexist, and homophobic jokes are widely available on iTunes, the Internet, and basic cable, most notably via Comedy Central's airing of Friars Club roasts. Time would return to the "vulgar culture" theme in 1999, with the cover story, "Are Movies and Music Killing America's Soul?" (Conclusion: Maybe!)
5. May 13, 1991: Crack Kids
Cue Ominous Music: "Their plight inspires both pity and fear. Pity that they are the innocent victims of society's ills. Pity that the odds will be stacked against them, at home, on the playground and in school. Fear that they will grow into an unmanageable multitude of disturbed and disruptive youth. Fear that they will be a lost generation."
Oh, Just Settle Down: The crack kids myth has been extensively debunked, most recently in the January 2009 New York Times article "Crack Babies: The Epidemic That Wasn't." The Times quoted researchers who've been following the so-called crack generation of kids, and they're finding the effects to be minor and subtle, and virtually indistinguishable from other problems that kids of crack mothers might experience, such as unstable families and poor parenting. Persistent scare stories from Time and other media outlets (including The New York Times itself) made "crack babies" a nationwide moral panic, inspiring a racially fueled push for stricter drug laws. As the Times article explains, the crack baby myth itself may now be doing harm to otherwise normal kids: "[C]ocaine-exposed children are often teased or stigmatized if others are aware of their exposure. If they develop physical symptoms or behavioral problems, doctors or teachers are sometimes too quick to blame the drug exposure and miss the real cause, like illness or abuse."
Why So Worried? Time hangs its entire scare on a single study, "Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway." That study found cyberporn was omnipresent on the Internet and led Time to produce one of its most (unintentionally) hilarious covers ever. Time even followed up four years later with the almost-as-ominous cover "Growing Up Online," which included this bed-wetting warning: "At any moment, the same kids listening to…'Baby One More Time' are just a few keystrokes away from Pandora's hard drive—from the appalling filth, unspeakable hatred and frightening prescriptions for homicidal mayhem" that plague the Internet.
Cue Ominous Music: "Perhaps because hard-core sex pictures are so widely available elsewhere, the adult BBS market seems to be driven largely by a demand for images that can't be found in the average magazine rack: pedophilia (nude photos of children), hebephilia (youths) and what the researchers call paraphilia—a grab bag of "deviant" material that includes images of bondage, sadomasochism, urination, defecation, and sex acts with a barnyard full of animals."
Oh, Just Settle Down: The "principal researcher" for the study that inspired Time's cover was actually an undergraduate, and experts began picking the study apart the moment the issue hit newsstands. Three weeks after the wee, wide-eyed web surfer cover, Time backpedalled–on page 57—explaining that real experts say "a more telling statistic is that pornographic files represent less than one-half of 1 percent of all messages posted on the Internet" and that, "it is impossible to count the number of times those files are downloaded; the network measures only how many people are presented with the opportunity to download, not how many actually do."
In 2009, a study commissioned by 49 state attorneys general found that the scaremongering in Time's "your child and the Internet" stories and dozens like them over the years was way overblown. The creepy-but-wired pedophile who substitutes Internet chat rooms for the van and a puppy is largely a myth. Moreover, most kids who download pornography online, the study notes, aren't innocently typing otherwise-innocuous phrases into search engines. Rather they are usually older male youths actively seeking the stuff out. Nor does giving out personal information online seem to make kids any more susceptible to predation.
3. Nov 22, 1999: Pokemon!
Oh, Just Settle Down: It's unlikely that the kids collecting Pokemon in the late 1990s grew up to be today's AIG execs. The timeline doesn't quite work. But the fad did pass. Near the end of the U.S. craze—and at the beginning of the U.K.'s—the BBC ran a slightly tongue-in-cheek article about Pokemon that found the fad to be a good lesson in economics, teaching children the theories of speculation, supply and demand, exchange rates, and bubble bursting. But one man's good lesson in economics is apparently another's lesson in predatory cunning and capitalist thuggery.
Why So Worried? Time's short, two-page story is almost incoherent. Its main peg is school shooter Charles Andrew Williams, who killed two and injured 13 at his high school in Santee, California nearly two years after the April 20, 1999 school shootings in Littleton, Colorado. The fear brought on by the "Columbine Effect," says Time, has adults scrambling for a solution to the problem of school violence: "A reasonable person who read the papers or watched the news last week might conclude that murderous violence could happen anywhere, at any time, in any school in America."
Cue Ominous Music: "Many of us float our children off to school in a bubble, grateful to live in a wholesome town—"We are America," Santee Mayor Randy Voepel declared—and unwilling to admit that the danger could follow us no matter where we go."
Oh, Just Settle Down: Bizarrely, after running off an alarming string of school shooting anecdotes, Time acknowledges the ridiculousness of its own cover by slipping in the story's only actual statistic: "youth violence is dropping…schools are getting safer" and "fewer than 1% of teen gun-related deaths occur in schools." Time might also have cited the Departments of Education and Justice's annual report on school safety for the year 2000, which found that "for students aged 12 to 18, overall school crime…decreased by nearly a third to 101 school-related crimes per 1,000 students in 1998, compared to 144 crimes per 1,000 in 1992. As the report concluded, "Violent deaths at school are extremely rare." But still scary enough to make the cover of Time. Thanks in part to scare stories like this one, dim-witted legislatures and school boards across the country enacted "zero tolerance" policies that led to kids getting arrested and suspended for drawing pictures, or for writing creative fiction about zombies.
Cue Ominious Music: "Campaigns against smoking and drunk driving have raised the national consciousness about these public-health issues dramatically. There's no reason to think an anti-obesity campaign can't do so as well—as long as everyone involved acknowledges that the problem is real and that solving it will be as hard as anything we've ever done."
Oh, Just Settle Down: In both the magazine and at an accompanying conference with ABC News in Williamsburg, Virginia, Time and its panel of experts reiterated the scary statistics: An estimated 400,000 people per year die of obesity. Obesity-related medical costs stand at $117 billion per year and climbing. Excess fat raises your risk of heart disease, cancer, and stroke. At the conference, keynote speaker Risa Lavizzo-Mouro of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation implored government action even in the absence of more reliable data, exclaiming to applause, "We need to act ahead of the science!"
But the science proved hard for the panic to overcome. In 2005, a team of CDC researchers published a study finding significant flaws with the 400,000 figure. The real number, they said, was closer to 112,000. And when you add in the protective effects of being mildly overweight, the number drops to 26,000. Moreover, while Americans have been getting fatter for 25 years, we still set new life expectancy records each year, and deaths from heart disease, cancer, and stroke have all fallen dramatically over that period. This is of course mostly due to advances in medical science. But obesity isn't exactly bringing on a public health calamity, either. As for medical costs, a 2008 Dutch study suggests what would seem to be intuitive: People who live longer tend to incur more lifetime medical expenses. Meaning that if obesity does modestly shorten lifespans, it does so at a savings to taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason. Jeff Winkler was Reason's spring 2009 Burton C. Gray Memorial Intern.