Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for April 18th, 2007

The tragedy of TV journalism

Posted by metaphorical on 18 April 2007

With all due respect to the victims, the victims friends and families, the friends and families of the victims friends and families, the fellow students, and students everywhere, and with apologies in advance for all I’m going to offend here, I’m already sick of this story and I haven’t even been watching any of it.

It’s a symptom of the problem, by the way, that I didn’t have to name the tragedy. It was also a practical choice. I can roll out that paragraph again for the next one: the next Va Tech, the next Columbine, the next Oklahoma City bombing, the next World Trade Center; heck, even the next OJ trial.

It’s a commonplace that people playing casino slot machines hour after hour are performing a repetitive motion akin to those on an assembly line, and that they’re paying for the privilege to do work that they wouldn’t hire out for. So too, if the average person were to be forced to watch any 12 consecutive hours of CNN yesterday, it would probably qualify under (pre-2001) definitions of torture.

Not to single out CNN. There was apparently plenty of coverage; by 1:00 p.m. you could probably press the TV remote at random and be assured of seeing Virginia Tech. Tom Shales of the Washington Post did a good job of describing the largess, though without any thought of condemning it. Indeed, he did a far better job that he intended, by inadvertently instantiating some of the many things wrong with the media today, as we’ll see. But first, let’s go to the videotape.

CNN was the first of the cable news networks to break the story, reporting it to viewers at 10:07 a.m., according to an industry insider. Fox News Channel was next at 10:12, followed by the NBC-owned MSNBC at 10:13. An anonymous troublemaker e-mailed a media blog to say that MSNBC was half an hour late in getting the story on the air, but a network source said that was simply not so.

Do we care? I don’t mean that Shales shouldn’t report it; as a media critic that’s what he’s supposed to be doing. (Though it’s really interesting that his byline reads, “Style Columnist”; the kind of media-watching he’s doing is, truly, just one step up from telling us who was wearing an Herrera dress or that Silver Peony and Hollyhock are the colors to be seen in this season.)

No, I mean, do we really care that CNN was first by five whole minutes or even that MSNBC might have been a half hour late? The actual tragedy was complete by 9:55 a.m., complete, that is, except for the 48-hour non-stop gnashing of teeth and renting of clothes to follow.

Of course, if one of the networks had been on to the story at the first shooting, and been on the scene after the first shootings at 7:15, that would have been significant. That is, after all, what the network executives must have wet dreams about. The next-best thing was the student cellphone video, which was broadcast by CNN and viewed on CNN.com 900,000 times by 1:00 p.m. (and who knows how many times from YouTube).

As Shales points out, “What made it unique and valuable was the soundtrack: Gunshots could be heard coming from one of the buildings.” CNN framed the video, with an anchor talking with the student cellphone videographer, Jamal Albarghouti. Albarghouti was asked which building was which, but wasn’t asked about some puzzling tapping noises, which seemed to come from near the cellphone and could have been anything from a computer keyboard to someone running on pavement.

Both Gibson and NBC anchor Brian Williams were on the air with special reports shortly past noon, but Katie Couric, the CBS News anchor, was on her way to Blacksburg. From there, she anchored an expanded one-hour edition of “CBS Evening News,” turning a borrowed campus office into a kind of salon and turning the program into a talk show, with various guests — including students who witnessed some of the violence — dropping by to be interviewed.

In light of this week’s rant about Couric, maybe returning to the talk show format is a good choice for her. (And maybe that’s what her viewers really want the NBC Evening News to be.)

The guests included Virginia Tech President Charles Steger, who went from his talk with Couric to a chat with Williams, by then anchoring “NBC Nightly News” from another location on or near the campus. At least Williams was outdoors with the campus buildings behind him, chilly wind messing up his hair, which gave his appearance an aura of authenticity. Couric was in a nondescript room that could have been anywhere; the only evidence it was in Blacksburg was that she told us it was.

Of course it could have been anywhere. As Shales also noted,

Networks, strapped for visual material, were forced to repeat static shots of parked police cars over and over.

This is the hallmark of stories that the cable networks are giving a disproportionate amount of attention to, relative to their importance. If there’s no actual news, drone endlessly on about the tragedy du jour, instead of moving on and talking about something that is news. It’s inconceivable that had the shootings in Blacksburg no occurred, CNN, Fox, et al. would have had dead air for 12 hours. Other stuff was happening in the world.

Yet even the relatively sober NY Times wallowed in Blacksburgania. A story I was interested in, because it contained answers to some questions raised in a rant here last week (“Buckle up”), barely made it to the top of the front page, with a single column running down to the fold, and a total, mostly on the inside, of 39 column inches. (That story concerned the fact that N.J. Gov. Corzine’s SUV was doing 91 mph at the time of the accident with its emergency lights flashing and was, the Times reported, at fault for the accident, at least to the extent that all the other maneuvering on the highway was to avoid Corzine and his simulation of an emergency-responding vehicle.)

Two VaTech stories started on the Times’s front page, taking up 54% of some of the most valuable media real estate in the world. They continued, and another three stories ran, inside, for three and a quarter pages, for a grand total of 442 column inches. That’s an 11:1 disparity between the two stories.

And yet, the Times still comes off as a paragon of moderation. Indeed, Shales is so immersed in media overload that he doesn’t see it as the wasteland of non-news that it is.

The details and pictures were very slow in coming throughout the day, even though the tragedy began to unfold shortly after 7 a.m., when the first of the day’s killings by an unidentified shooter took place in a campus dormitory. Blacksburg is remote as TV locations go, a college town served by relatively small network affiliates and independent stations, so networks had no easy time moving in and setting up camp.

Slow in coming! By 1:00 p.m. there wasn’t a person in the U.S. who wasn’t aware of the story and over a million of them had watched a grainy video of some small part of it.

This impatience to have all the details is the same reason we are giving up the democratic process of elections. By opting for uncountable electronic voting machines we have traded free and fair elections for mysterious hackable ones, all so that we can know who the winner is—by fair means or foul—in time for Letterman. So too, if we waited a bit, we could have had the Virginia Tech story once, accurately, and moved on to Corzine, Moktada al-Sadr’s peaceful overthrow of the Iraqi government, and the latest news about Darfur.

And yet, Shales is so immersed in the wasteland of non-news TV news journalism that he can say

by personalizing mass tragedy through the words and pictures of those who lived through it, television democratized the sorrow, outrage and alarm — just as it had done, in much larger scale and scope, on 9/11/2001.

There’s a difference between democracy and pap, or at least there used to be. Three decades ago Virginia Tech would have been a 5-minute story on the evening news, with essentially no visuals except the campus itself, and then a story—a single story—in the newspaper the next morning. I have yet to see an argument that the more “modern” style of TV news journalism has improved our understanding of world affairs since then.

A very great friend of mine, Madeleine Page, once wrote, about the death penalty as it happens, “To my view, the state should stand between me and my primitive responses, not as a proxy for them.”

So too, is it too much to ask that our television news reporting stand between us and our quite natural desire to wallow in any tragedy, great or small?

Madeleine also once said, during an unexpectedly light (for the Mid-Atlantic states) snowstorm in March 2001, “Any minute now the teevee newsfolks are going to disappear right up their own arseholes.”

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