What is BREAKING News?

This morning, I received the following news bulletin from Fox News. I subscribe to the breaking news alerts of every major network. Fox was the only network that sent this alert:

obama-hiv

Now, take a look at this story from today’s Chicago Sun-Times. It’s not that the Fox bulletin was blatantly inaccurate,   but it certainly was very  misleading.  Shouldn’t the term “breaking news” be reserved for urgent events that are in the process of taking place?

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Does This Rise to the Level of an Urgent News Bulletin?

Some of you who know about my ongoing love/hate relationship with 24 hour cable news (sadly, more disgust and disappointment than anything else) might assume that I ask the following question with my mind already made up.

Not true. I am really curious about what you think.

It is now September 2, 2008 at 4:06PM. I just received the news bulletin below. I subscribe to the breaking news bulletins of every major network and cable news source. Do you think  this rises to the “urgent” level of newsworthiness? No other network has distributed it.

The question is not whether this is serious. Of course it is.

How, though, should we define “breaking news?” Might this have actually been a “bulletin” with the primary purpose of increasing the television audience?

Update: The plane landed safely in the last 15 minutes, about ten minutes after I received the bulletin.

—–Original Message—–
From: BREAKING NEWS [mailto:breakingnews@foxnews.com]
Sent: Tuesday, September 02, 2008 3:50 PM
To: BREAKINGNEWS Subscribers
Subject: FNC Alert

AA FLIGHT WITH 136 PEOPLE ON BOARD CIRCLING LAX WITH BLOWN TIRE: WATCH LIVE

**Watch FOX News Channel or go to http://foxnews.com

MSNBC and Prison Reality Programming:” Or How Did “Lockup Raw” Get On a News Channel?

 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.

On MSNBC, for example, we are treated to such unrepentant claptrap as Lockup Raw and Caught on Camera, and, reaching even deeper into the cultural garbage bin, re-runs of To Catch a Predator.

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.