Monday, May 07, 2007

COLUMN: Breaking News

Long ago when I had a dream of someday having my own weekly niche in the newspaper, I never expected that I would use said niche to compare the Cable News Network to Bobcat Goldthwait. But hey, weirder things have happened, I suppose.

A few years back, a friend and I went to see Bobcat perform live at a local comedy club. It was a REALLY funny gig, but it got awkward at the end. As the show was concluding, it became painfully evident that Goldthwait had used up most of his planned material. However, the wait staff hadn't finished closing out tabs and seeing people off. This left Goldthwait in the unenviable position of having to kill time until the wait staff sorted out everyone's bills. While he did a decent job ad-libbing a few extra minutes, it was QUITE obvious to those of us in the crowd that the material Goldthwait was offering was filler at best.

This past week, I was on vacation. Well, no -- vacation implies that I was somewhere fun doing something fun. I simply was being paid to NOT be at work. Rather than use my vacation time to tour some exotic land, I chose to stay at home, recharge the batteries, and watch a remarkably unhealthy amount of TV.

Little did I know that I picked a doozy of a week to sit glued in front of the TV. What I thought would end up being a week's worth of television comedy at its finest turned into a week-long telethon of tragedy. Between the horrors at Virginia Tech, the senseless workplace shooting at NASA, and the sad loss of a Navy Blue Angel, I spent a LOT of my vacation staring at CNN with my head shaking.

But as much as I appreciate the instant coverage that the TV news channels provide, I realized this week just why I love newspapers as much as I do: newspapers give you news -- on paper. In one glance, you can read all there is to know about a major news event. No hubbub, no spectacle, just the facts as we know them prior to that issue's deadline.

I'm a here-and-now kinda guy. I realize that today's society lives as mere rest stops on the information superhighway. I respect and admire the fact that, like what happened numerous times last week, someone can call me and go, "Dude, are you watching this? Turn on the TV right now," and within seconds, I'm up to pace. But that right there is also the problem of cable news: It DOES take mere seconds to get up to speed on a breaking news story... yet the networks give these stories hours and hours of coverage, some of which is crucial and informative, but most is just pure filler.

When the tragedy at Virginia Tech occurred last week, all the major networks broke in immediately with all-day coverage. CNN quickly procured a video filmed on a cell phone by a VT student. The video showed the exterior of Norris Hall. Inside of that building, unspeakable horror was being played out, yet outside all you saw was a building, the awful sound of gunfire, and then audio of someone yelling.

In other words, the video served little purpose as to coverage of the event. It wasn't news; it was shock-and-awful. I stopped counting after CNN replayed that video 45 times that afternoon. Not only replayed it, but interviewed the student who shot the video three times. Each interview, they asked the student what the yelling at the end of the tape was. Was it students? The gunman? No, it was a police officer yelling at the amateur documentarian to get away from the building.

When the Blue Angel pilot was sadly killed at the air show this past weekend, once again the networks rolled into wall-to-wall Breaking News mode. Problem was, other than waiting for the Navy press conference, there really wasn't much to talk about.

Yet we were subject to hours of the news networks riffing about the Blue Angels, the Carolina coastline, airplanes in general, etc., etc. At one point, CNN contacted one of their reporters embedded in the Middle East and woke her up in the middle of the night to put her on air. Why? Because years prior, this reporter had flown with the Blue Angels in a fluff piece. Her much-needed international insight? "Those planes travel fast." Meanwhile, on the crawl at the bottom of the screen, it's mentioned in passing that a charter plane crashed in the Florida Keys killing 3. Why does THAT tragedy merit only a crawl?

The cable networks aren't dumb - they know that breaking news equals viewers. It doesn't matter if it's O.J.'s car chase, Anna Nicole's kid, or one of the greatest tragedies to ever strike our nation -- the news networks will be there, looping film footage, over-analyzing, talking to witnesses who witnessed nothing, and covering stories when the stories themselves haven't been written yet.

At some point, the cable channels need to know when Breaking News becomes Broken News. If you want to survive in the business of information, you need to inform -- NOT mindlessly riff and kill time like a comedian struggling to get offstage.

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