The Great British Overstatement: Brexit Deserved Less Media Attention

Protesters gather against the EU referendum result in Trafalgar Square on June 28, 2016 in London, England.

Protesters gather against the EU referendum result in Trafalgar Square on June 28, 2016 in London, England. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Remember Brexit—that news flash that, for a weekend, took over US news coverage bombarding us with predictions of massive economic catastrophe.

Let’s face it, for months on end leading up to Brexit, as far as the United States was concerned, Brexit was a complete and total non-story.  Until, that is, the day of the vote.

Most media outlets in the United States only started covering Brexit the day the British voted to exit the European Union.  And suddenly, Brexit became a three-ring, media-driven, circus. It was turned into an economic crisis that would have lasting consequences not just for England, but for economies as far away as China. It became an international, diplomatic crisis with proportions unparalleled in history. Yet now, a few short weeks later, the hype and hysteria are all but forgotten.

European media covered the Brexit in the weeks leading up to the vote.  Even the Israeli media focused on the story for weeks prior to the vote.  It was all, of course, seen through a narrow self-centered prism, but there was coverage.  But not the US.

The most important lesson to be gleaned from the Brexit story in the United States is that the media is driven by entertainment. Unfortunately, nothing is more entertaining than a crisis. There is a fascination with the macabre. This manipulation of the American psyche may be the only way to get the masses of Americans interested in world economics—at least for a day or so.

The United Kingdom composes a mere fraction—about 4 percent—of the world economy.  Today, Great Britain is a “has been” in that world. The attention that is being paid to her now is in deference to the lofty position she held in her former role as a colonial empire that, at one point, exerted significant influence in the world.  England’s economy is about the size of the State of California. Great Britain is the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world and the kicker is that her economy is not calculated in EU numbers. In the calculations of the World Bank, the IMF and the UN, the GDP of Great Britain has always been treated as a separate entity from other European Union nations.

At this point, the defection by Great Britain from the European Union will hardly be a chink in the EU’s armor. So why the hype?

Some outlets covered Brexit because other media outlets covered Brexit and nobody wants to be left out.  News coverage today is based on the rule of thumb, “If it bleeds it leads.” During a crisis, especially an economic crisis, the media becomes a lifeline that sustains and buoys people in their time of need. Markets may tank and people may lose faith in the foundations of their economy, but media remains constant. Once upon a time in America the news was its own division in the massive media networks.  Today, much of the news industry is subsumed under entertainment.  That says quite a lot.

In the United States, even the weather is entertainment.  So if there is a tiny chance of snow ninety miles from NYC, no matter how irrelevant a story it is, it will become a nail-biting, headline news story, often leading the entire news report, not just in the weather forecast.

The Brexit vote was on the calendar.  It was expected to be a close vote. That alone warranted significant coverage in the US in the weeks leading up to the vote. But that’s not what happened. Analysts, thinkers, editors all have a responsibility to keep it honest, and in this instance, they failed. Or maybe they were right in the first place and should have just given Brexit modest, reserved coverage after the vote just as they did before.

This need for the sensational is the same perversion of the truth that drives Western coverage of Israel and the Middle East.  It is the driving force that morphs and warps most coverage of Israel, especially coverage dealing with the Palestinians.

Crisis, horror and hype are what drive the coverage.  It’s true for the Middle East and now it’s true for Brexit. Whatever happens in the Brexit aftermath, there is one thing I can safely say, it is not a crisis.

If you want a crisis, however, worry about the potential increase in the price of scotch.

The Great British Overstatement: Brexit Deserved Less Media Attention