by Walter Brasch
CNN is the 24/7 media trumpet for news about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that is presumed to have crashed in the Southern Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia. On that flight were 227 passengers and 12 crew members.
CNN grabbed every iota of information, pumped it full of digital frequencies, and broadcast it to what it thought was a world salivating for every syllable of thought.
When there was news, CNN broadcast it. When there was no news, CNN broadcast it. When there were outrageous theories, CNN was the source to find out who was saying what. When there was a rumor, CNN broadcast that, only to have to retract it hours later. Through chatter and repetition, CNN kept the story alive.
This wasn’t the first time the media became fixated on a story. It certainly won’t be the last. There was non-stop coverage of the death of Princess Diana, the O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson trials. Fox News grabbed onto Obamacare, President Obama’s alleged birth in Kenya, and the Benghazi story, even when the facts didn’t support its preconceived conclusions. More recently, MSNBC’s evening anchors have given non-stop wall-to-wall coverage of the Chris Christie “Bridgegate” story, another story that was hyped by constant repetition.
“All News-All Day” isn’t new. During the Yellow Journalism age and circulation wars in the late 19th century, media giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer often sent to press several editions a day. Hearst, whose jingoistic determination helped bring about the Spanish-American War in 1898, was not adverse to publishing as many as 30 editions a day to “update” his million subscribers and millions more readers of the New York Journal, all of whom were willing to pay three cents per edition to get even more news each day.
In the early 1960s, the radio medium developed all-news stations. However, the news package was often a prepackaged cycle that ran every seven, nine, 11, or 20 minutes, with new content every now and then.
The 24/7 news cycle, as we now know it, was initiated by CNN more than three decades ago, and became a necessary part of information dissemination during the first Gulf War in 1990-1991. CNN had correspondents in Baghdad; the coverage was critical in keeping Americans, especially family members of combat troops, informed of the reasons for the war and numerous issues that developed from that war, as well as hour-by-hour coverage of the war itself.
Since then, the CNN concept of all-day coverage, which had been spoofed and held as an example of what not to do in news, has been successfully copied by MSNBC, Fox News, other cable news operations, and dozens of web-only news-commentary operations.
Newspapers, which have often lagged in innovation, began to go 24/7 by a combination of once-a-day print production and continuous updates in their web editions. Reporters at one time wrote a story, turned it in to the “desk,” forgot it and went to other stories. Copyeditors often improved the story, gave it a headline, put it onto the page, and sent it to the “back shop” where it became a part of pre-press composition and the “press run.” However, in the “we want news right now—and make it short because we don’t have the attention span” world, reporters are writing the story for the print edition, while also recording it on cell phones and digital cameras, sometimes narrating the footage, for the web edition. If anything changes during the day, the reporter then spends the rest of the day juggling other stories and updates on the original story.
But there is a major problem when the media—print or visual—become fixated upon one story, such as Flight 370. Other stories are swept aside. The mudslide near Oso, Wash., that killed 30, with at least a dozen still missing, is one of those stories that should have dominated the news media. The cascade of a 600-foot hillside is the most deadly landslide in U.S. history. Yet, it was often the second or third story on evening news, behind what still wasn’t known about Flight 370.
Dozens of stories, both breaking news and features, could have—and should have—been written and broadcast. While local media did exemplary work in keeping the story fresh, the national news media—apparently believing Washington state is only on the fringe of the continental United States—gave significantly less coverage to the mudslide than to the missing flight or the latest Hollywood gossip.
Among stories that should have been reported, but were either given minimal coverage or shoved aside for the airline story, were reasons why the hill collapsed and the ecological and environmental harm it caused. There should have been stories about why the hillside wasn’t protected and the political reasons why. There should have been stories directed to people in other parts of the nation on how to protect yourself against various kinds of natural disasters. There should have been stories about the emergency management agency and its responsibilities, about the first responders and the 400 search and rescue workers, including their training, what they were doing, how they were doing it, and how they overcame innumerable problems. There were dozens of unreported stories about the work of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other social service agencies. There should have been extensive reporting about the psychological trauma affecting workers and residents. There should have been stories about the city itself, its businesses, and how they responded. There should have been stories about the effects of the mudslide upon the schools, and how the youth unselfishly helped. Yes, there were dozens of stories that could have, and should have, been reported to a national audience.
Both Flight 370 and the mudslide are tragedies. But, CNN was fixated on a missing airline, taking a few hours off to cover the Fort Hood shootings; Fox was fixated upon attacking President Obama; and MSNBC was fixated upon a New Jersey scandal.
Although those stories may be important, not one of them matter as much as what happened in Oso, Wash.
[Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and author. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation into the process and health and environmental effects of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to mine gas.]