Burned after the last screw-up in which they apparently announced the Court’s healthcare decision after reading only the first few pages, it looks like CNN has learned a valuable lesson:
I’ve long had a beef with the trend in 24-hour cable news coverage that enshrined hyperventilation, faux-urgency, and screens flashing the words “breaking news” as standard operating procedure.
It’s not that some news — much news — isn’t genuinely earth shaking, it’s that gravity is no longer allowed to logically emerge from the magnitude of an event. News has to be hyped and flashed and yelled and screamed, as if some viewers or listeners might somehow have missed the seriousness of a terrorist bombing.
One result is that those first, few moments when we learn of an event has become absolutely polluted by hasty news judgments, spreading of rumors, and speculation about facts that virtually no one could actually know.
And when the event is truly traumatic — when the public is desperately struggling to understand something that seems to defy explanation — all this babbling and speculating can only increase widespread feelings of dislocation and disorientation. The world – already heading to “hell in a hand basket “ – can only look more confused and unpredictable.
So what else is new?
News delivered in the form of screams and shouts is old news. The frenzied attempts to be first that recently led CNN into a series of major blunders is now routine. One wonders if the CNN brand can even survive the string of embarrassing and inaccurate “scoops” that have turned out to be so completely and unambiguously wrong.
What is news is that – amidst the tragic events of the last week – one calm, brilliant, judicious voice could be heard almost non-stop — rejecting rumors, waiting for confirmation, dismissing publicized inaccuracies, and slowly – with impeccable news judgment – piecing the complex story together. It was a virtuoso display of what can still happen in the digital age when one person’s supremely sound judgment and sense of fairness are allowed to trump all the bells and whistles and urgent music that too often passes for substance on the networks.
So let us praise and honor the work of NBC correspondent Pete Williams, who needed only a few phones, a chair and a table to find truth in a flood of fragments, half-truths, and rumors.
Any one of the hundreds of careful, declarative sentences Pete delivered this week was almost certain to contain more confirmed truth than any randomly selected hour of the crazed, over-caffeinated, circus now performing at CNN.
I have seen the news, and it is Pete.
This email just arrived, and it came before any other news outlet felt certain enough to confirm a rumored arrest.
CNN apparently feels comfortable. Now we’ll see if they — as they have been known to do on multiple occasions — jumped the gun or if I (and I will do this) have to eat the paper print-out of the email as penance for wrongfully suspecting their accuracy.
The fact that they have added “source tells” shouldn’t ever fool anyone. This is their attempt to be first on the Internet and I’ll be surprized, happy, and definitely have a little bit of indigestion if they are right.
I will video and post my eating the email if they turn out to hgave gotten this news precisely right!
See you at 5:00PM for the daily Wolf Blitzer exercize in hyper-ventialtion and hyper-urgency.
To watch talking heads, lacking much if any authoritative information, coming to instant, facile conclusions about suspects, motives, and details is not to watch journalism. It is the equivalent of attending a seance or meeting with a psychic. Armed with little knowledge and even less common sense, these hyper-ventilating bloviators fill the air with conjecture that is so uninformed, so embarrassingly foolish, that the only thing clarified is their incompetence. They will dispense psychiatric diagnoses, forensic theories, and all sorts of other expert opinions when the only thing they lack is — whoops — expertise.
I am going to start to cite specific examples so I can then provide names. All I know is that, if there was ever a time when 24 hour cable news performers showed any journalistic restraint and skepticism, that is now history.
One laughable example is a CNN reporter who not only freely offers his strange guesses about what might be going on and compares one incident with another he may have covered a few years back. He also asks questions of witnesses in which he coaxes them, not to inform, but to guess, to imagine, to hypothesize. After what I saw during the Ft. Hood coverage, I am now on a mission to bring you specific examples of just how speculative a talking head can be when hyperventilation rather than reporting is the goal.
My love-hate relationship with 24 hour cable news continues.
I’ve admitted it before: None of my criticism of 24 hour cable news – including what I have to say here – can hide a simple fact: When all hell breaks loose, or when an event occurs that is important to me, I am tuned in for the wall to wall coverage like any other news-loony.
The problem with MSNBC, CNN, and FOX is that they are responsible for news holes too immense to fill and too costly to fill with in-depth reporting. So they each rely on all sorts of filler — talking heads, re-runs of regular network magazine shows, and reality shows from independent producers – to fill the schedule. Of course, this is a tacit admission that they are simply unwilling to spend the resources required to fill the hole with serious news or analysis.
Believe me; I am sure that they would rather fill the hole with enough truly cataclysmic events that they could keep “BREAKING NEWS” flashing on the bottom of the screen permanently. The problem is that, by mercilessly hyping any remotely interesting news story, they have raised the catastrophe bar so high that a war between India and Pakistan might not even make the cut unless one of the countries loaded up the nukes.
OK, so I exaggerate.
But barring a world that doesn’t come apart 24 hours a day, they each look to trashy programming as filler.
And this is where “Prison-P–n” comes in. One of MSNBC’s most popular fillers is Lockup Raw, which offers hours of riots and fights inside prisons backed by a soundtrack of screaming and yelling and all-around mayhem. We learn nothing about the causes of prison conditions.
But we do learn the profound and shocking lesson that inmates occasionally beat the hell out of each other. Brilliant. And deep. Very deep.
Normally I wouldn’t waste keyboard strokes about “Prison P–n” programming, but last week I heard a feature on NPR’s All Things Considered about the inhuman conditions in California prisons, including crowding, disease, and sexual assault. As I listened, I was struck even more how garbage like Lockup Raw, with all its screaming and bleeding, is too mindless to offer even a slightly provocative insight about why prisons are the way they are.
They keep it quite simple: Prisoners are animals. Prisons are zoos.
Please check out the extraordinary report by Laura Sullivan on overcrowding at San Quentin that was broadcast July 7th on All Things Considered. No video. No blood. No prison p–n. only a brilliant and chilling story about what happens when two inmates occupy a cell built for one; when the barbaric view of the human being as animal is formalized in a state’s public policy and practice.
With all the disgust I feel for much of the detritus that the 24 hour cable news channels use to fill their bottomless news hole, I won’t deny that I am simultaneously a fan.
CNN and MSNBC are simply indispensable for live coverage of breaking news. Further, they each are staffed with journalists capable of on the spot analysis and perceptive commentary that can be superb. I think of CNN’s William Schneider, former CNN Baghdad correspondent and bureau chief Jane Arraf and medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta. And what about people at MSNBC like Robert Bazell, perhaps the best science and medical reporter of the last several decades, Keith Olbermann, political director Chuck Todd, and Tim Russert?
I should say that I don’t omit Fox News out of any knee-jerk revulsion. I am glad the audience who feels their views represented by Fox has that highly partisan option. I only wish that they would at least be honest about their ideological slant, rather than continuing to make the embarrassing (and amusing) claim of fairness and balance.
Fox simply has very little, if anything, to say to me.
But all three of the cable news networks are faced with an insatiable news beast demanding to be fed. And it seems that, in the age of screaming and incivility, nothing fills a slow news day better than two or three minimally informed pseudo-experts trying ever-so-hard to out-shout each other.
No surprise there.
There is an unintended, entertaining benefit to all this: When your definition of news makes room for yelling by provocateurs rather than reporting by reporters, you occasionally are treated to an idiocy that transcends any definition of idiocy you ever imagined.
So here we go. Check out these comments on Fox News by Liz Trotta, her attempt to bring some “analysis” to the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s remarks about the RFK assassination.
And ask yourself: How does any news organization keep someone like Liz Trotta on the air? Where is her apology? Who will take the responsibility for deciding that suggesting the assassination of a presidential candidate should be a career-ender, something that should preclude her from ever doing news or commentary again?
This isn’t about her right to express herself. She can be as astoundingly stupid as she wants. And she can do it on the air. The question is whether Fox will decide that the “decency-line” has been crossed.
Watch closely. Her comments come quickly at the end of this short excerpt. And they are repulsive.
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.