All posts by Gary C. Woodward

Help Them Turn if Off

We have good evidence from studies that show that heavy news consumption results in higher levels of generalized anxiety.  It the logical outcome of being fed the day’s most dismaying events in a cycle that never stops.

There has been a noticeable increase in mental health problems that have sprung up from the stresses of the long quarantine created by the Covid-19 virus.  It’s understandable that frontline workers, students and parents are facing challenges few would have anticipated less than a year ago. But it is also true that instances of depression have increased dramatically among the old, who would seem to have the means to ride out the effects of the pandemic with fewer daily challenges. In fact, it’s the lack of variety that has affected many seniors, especially those living in facilities which have converted their caution into long periods of virtual lockdowns.  At many senior facilities activities have been cancelled, meals are served only to individuals in their rooms, and chances to mingle with others–including family members–are non-existent or limited.

In the absence of these activities, many consume hours of cable television news: often channels that are easily found on their limited cable services.  This fact makes it important to repeat a central conclusion: heavy doses of cable news can be harmful to an individual’s sense of wellbeing. The world through a cable lens is one wracked with problems, crimes, horrible governmental actions or inactions, and the inevitable screw-ups that have occurred because of the virus. I’m told that many are also worried about the instability of the President.

The obvious antidote is to spend more time in the real rather than the mediated world. 

Seniors are natural consumers of news.  They grew up in an era when newspapers and the nightly newscasts from the three main television networks were on the daily docket. Nearly everyone read a paper and watched Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley. But news then did not sell itself as a 24/7 business. Now, by contrast, the “Breaking News” slides show up every hour as the cable networks compete for ratings against their rivals. Their formula always includes the premise that there is something new and usually shocking to report.  Watch these outlets long enough and all of us are capable of showing symptoms of PTSD.

The obvious antidote is to spend more time in the real rather than the mediated world.  Because national events are pressing in on all of us, it seems like common sense to acknowledge the challenges, but also to frequently step away from the endless news cycle to find alternative evidence of the good and hopeful that is happening around us. If you are regularly in contact with someone in some form of a lockdown, you can help them break out of the limited horizons of their television set.  Some suggestions:

  • Help them get a library card with e-book loan privilege’s.  They can make choices at home using their library’s website, usually keeping a book without cost for two weeks.
  • Give them an Mp3 player loaded with music they might like.  If in doubt, ask them what they would like to hear.
  • Point out the podcasts that are available on their laptop or computer.  In addition to these useful programs that have caught on with millions of listeners, their computer can also access a wealth of video content through YouTube. Give them suggestions of music or videos they would enjoy.  Also, old radio and tv shows of Jack Benny or Bob Hope can be fun. And there are many more.
  • Audible and some libraries provide recorded books. is not the only source, but it is a good place to start to look for materials.
  • Cable channels that carry current and classic films are available on most cable systems. The range of choices and benefits may be worth the modest monthly fee.
  • Ask a senior facility’s activities staff to help your senior set up cable or computer access, if needed. Some may have more time to help, since they are often restricted from organizing group activities.

In the end, the goal should be to help seniors get around the corrosive monoculture of television news.  There are times when we all want to tune in, but surely not all of the time.


The Feds Say its Safe**

We’ve recently had cabinet members who knew less than your uncle Fred about nuclear power, infectious diseases or airline safety. 

A recent item in the New York Times noted that the EPA has reversed itself and declared that a pesticide chlorpyrifos is safe for children.  This was after another agency, the CDC, reversed itself on how easily Covid-19 is passed to others in open air. These odd reversals follow months of ominous decisions made by regulatory agencies to ignore or loosen standards for drinking water, meat packers, protection of federal lands and automobile efficiency. They add up to an eyebrow raising collection of rulings that suggest that this crop of agency leaders is mostly taking long lunches and trying to not notice the hazards they are enabling.

It’s also a good moment to reconsider whether our government truly has our backs on workplace and product safety, the protection of natural resources and the promotion of best public health practices. You’ve probably heard that there is this virus going around.

My own inclination these days is to put a mental asterisk next to any report issued by a federal agency.  I also try to remember to give a second look at products that were purchased in the belief that someone had deemed them relatively safe.

It’s not that the regulatory agencies aren’t filled with good people. They clearly are. And some agencies like the CDC are (were?) arguably monuments to the best that any government has done to watch out for the health of its citizens.  But it is clear career professionals are now not always allowed to do their work without political interference.  The Trump administration has its own ideas about where hurricanes are going to hit, whether it’s safe to put our children in schools and whether there is anything happening to warrant cutting green house gases.


Many of these agencies were once crown jewels of governmental responsiveness.

In truth, the President has appointed men and a few women who are ill-equipped to respect the mission and history of the agencies they are ostensibly managing. Units as diverse as the Justice Department, Post Office, the Department of Education and OSHA are now managed by political appointees that often muzzle their vastly more knowledgeable employees. We’ve even had cabinet members who knew less than your clueless uncle Fred about their agency’s domains such as nuclear power or the hazards of fracking for oil.  Recent actions especially by the Attorney General have shown an appalling lack of judgment about judicial independence.

Many of these agencies were once the crown jewels of governmental responsiveness. To give one example, there’s no question we are all safer now than our grandparents because of the NTSB, which investigates airline and other transportation disasters. The NTSB’s investigators have been models for letting evidence take us to where it will, regardless of the wounded pride of pilots, airlines or plane makers.  We are now safer in the air than on our roads.

In some ways Trump’s entire laissez-faire approach to regulation was already losing its appeal before he took over. More than in past decades, many Americans have noticed that we are often on our own to make estimates about food safety, workplace standards and environmental threats.

The FAA is close to recertifying the 737 Max after Boeing has made modifications to stop uncontrolled and rapid descents. Surely its pilots will be cautious, and Boeing must know that it can’t afford any more preventable accidents from its aged design. But I suspect regulatory laxity in the U.S. will mean that frequent flyers will be especially interested in whether European regulators certify the modified planes as airworthy.