Remember Howard Beale, the anchorman played by Peter Finch in the film “Network?” I always think of his “mad as hell” moment when I see the latest example of 24 hour cable news networks like MSNBC and CNN and Fox shamelessly pumping overdoses of adrenaline and fear into anything they characterize as “breaking news.” Video is played and replayed, graphics and special effects get more and more dramatic, any pseudo-expert who claims to have a legitimate “Dr.” is instantly anointed an authority, the voices of announcers take on an unintentionally hilarious pseudo-gravitas, and we are off and running on our latest social panic.
Yes, I understand that the business model requires that an audience be delivered to advertisers. If audience research has genuinely shown that hyper-ventilation attracts larger audiences, more power to them. At least in the new age of digital information, we have alternatives like RSS feeds, the Internet, radio, local newspapers, blogs and all the other new technologies and techniques.
So if there are so many other choices offering the same content, why does this nutty hyper-activity still bother me? It’s that I can’t shake the fact that there are still large audiences being subjected to “news on crystal meth” whose world view is being shaped by the idea that the basic elements of human life are “fast-breaking,” “urgent,” and “exclusive.”
Hyping a balloon trip across New Mexico or a butcher closing after 30 years is one thing. But what about all the times when the news has to do with some aspect of life, health or safety that really affects the way people live? What if the news is about the efficacy of a medication? The recall of a food product? Or a new strain of the flu virus that was not covered by the last flu shot? A terrorist incident? A crib with a defective mechanism?
This is where the breathlessness and hyper-hyping can do its real dirty work, pumping up the volume so high that basic facts get lost amidst the cacophony. Let’s say the news is calling a widely used medication into question. Pity the viewer who really needs to hear the nuanced findings that will allow him or her to make an informed decision. And what of the stories completely buried under the avalanche, like the risk of falling among older citizens. Fear-hyping, call it FYPING, makes it all but impossible to communicate this nuance with care and concern for the people whose lives are affected. And how long is news actually “breaking?”
I have seen stories on the AP wire in the morning that 12 hours later are still being reported by MSNBC’s Dan Abrams with an ominous breaking news logo and nerve-shattering theme music.
Of course the answer is that the news is only breaking as long as we let it, as long we listen or watch. But never, ever try to tell me that in matters of true urgency, where health and safety are really on the line, that this is how you most effectively communicate the specific information that people really need. CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and MSNBC’s Robert Bazell are notable exceptions, but most of the time frenzy reigns supreme.
And all we get is the adrenaline without the content. The fear. The hyping. The fyping.
Thank you Howard Beale. I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore.