PEST, the Affliction That Flew Around the World

Last week, a Florida psychologist and certified sex therapist named Douglas Schooler sent out a press release announcing that he was offering trauma therapy to Kerry voters depressed about the results of the election. The Boca Raton News took the bait and interviewed Schooler for an article, in which he said he had “treated 15 clients and friends with ‘intense hypnotherapy’” since Kerry’s concession. In addition to Schooler, the piece quoted a spokesperson for a recovery group called “Emotions Anonymous,” as well as one Rob Gordon, executive director of the American Health Association, a Boca Raton-based non-profit which lists as its mission, “To change the way we age, emphasizing preventative health care and pre-emptive aging, combining the best of East/West alternative and complementary therapies in a self-health, stay healthier health model.” Gordon told the Boca News that he too had begun counseling depressed local residents for what he dubbed “Post-Election Selection Trauma,” or PEST, as it came to be called.

As one might imagine, the story generated headlines beyond Boca. It was picked up by gleeful conservative websites, news outlets in New Zealand and South Africa, wire service Agence-France Press, and, perhaps most notably, talk radio bloviator Rush Limbaugh (subscription required), who sarcastically offered his own counseling services to distressed Kerry voters. The phenomenon inspired Boca Raton News reporter Sean Salai to churn out a flurry of stories, culminating in today’s piece, headlined “Psychologists blast Rush Limbaugh for Mocking Traumatized Kerry Voters.”

“Rush Limbaugh has no clinical qualifications to counsel anyone,” indignant AHA clinician Shelia Cooperman says in the piece. “He’s not only minimizing PEST, but he’s bastardizing the entire psychological field and our clinical expertise.” The Drudge Report quickly linked to the new article.

When we first read the News’ pieces about PEST, we thought perhaps we had stumbled across some Onion-style parody. The notion of Post Election Selection Trauma, a heretofore-undiagnosed affliction that came complete with its own absurd acronym and the backing of characters seemingly right out of a Carl Hiassen novel, strained credibility. Salai’s pieces barely gave voice to dissenters within the psychological community, who might think the PEST diagnosis a bit overblown and grandiose — and the article about Limbaugh, complete with indignant response, seemed an effort to squeeze a little more life out of a story that was barely a story to start with. (To be clear, we’re no fans of Limbaugh. But he’s a performer, and he has every right to satirically offer “free therapy” to victims of an overnight trauma with its own overnight acronym without being accused in print of “bastardizing the entire psychological field.”)

The more interesting question was this: Why was the News earnestly publishing deadpan stories that the outside world couldn’t resist ridiculing? The News is a 25,000-circulation daily written for an insular community, one that perhaps greeted PEST with more credibility than a wider public might, a paper that recently ran an article entitled “When Bad Manicures Happen to Good People.” In an email, Salai defended the series, writing, “Given the context of the Boca News, I think we had ample dissent in the therapy series.”

There’s little doubt that Salai is dealing with a different audience than a New York Times reporter, and we understand that small town journalism has its own unique pressures. Too many of the kinds of pieces that would be applauded by Times readers — pieces that, say, debunk diagnoses that the outside world scoffs at but a small community embraces — could get a small town reporter in hot water. But does that relieve him from a responsibility to check in with professional voices questioning a diagnosis as novel as Gordon’s PEST — and to share those voices with his readers?

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.