Politics, Technology, and Language

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

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.”


28 Responses to “The tragedy of TV journalism”

  1. Rachel said

    I’m pretty much in agreement with everything except your statement that three decades ago this would have been a five minute story on the news. I think that something like this would have warranted the special coverage of an extra half-hour news special.

  2. […] Beth Coleman wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThere was apparently plenty of coverage; by 1:00 pm 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 … […]

  3. […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptThere was apparently plenty of coverage; by 1:00 pm 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 … […]

  4. ClaireDePlume said

    Three decades ago on May 28, 1975, my hometown high school was the scene of a shocking tragedy, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_school_massacres)
    The death count was 4 – one teacher, her unborn child, one student, and the shooter. Thirteen lay injured and bleeding in the hallways and classrooms. Before leaving the school for lunch, my husband – then a student and not yet my husband – had just visited the third floor restroom precisely one floor above the one where 16 year old Mike Slobodian loaded his gun and then began his quest to “go gunning” for the teacher who had given his science project a poor grade (he also failed at this more lethal attempt). Within minutes of the shooting, numerous unmarked cars zoomed to the school, along with a special car to rescue the teen aged children of the then Premier of Ontario. The rest of the students in the school were under lock down. A woman – a registered nurse – living with running distance rushed to help and as she tended to injured and bleeding students, her son lay dying in another part of the school. Brampton, Ontario was on the map for quite some time, the news reports fading some weeks later, only for the story to be revived later that autumn in Ottawa, Ontario where a similar shooting rampage occurred.

    Five years later, a reporter with the local paper called my home to inquire about my husband for a piece she was writing. My mother answered, and made mention that her son-in-law had been at the high school that day 5 years prior. When his obituary was printed, the reporter had my husband in the same restroom, at the same time…for drama no doubt. Perhaps this was another Couric clone without the plastic surgery and plastic infusions of botox clouding her brain. Perhaps she was just trying to make for interesting copy. I always regretted that my grief over my husband’s death prevented me from calling the paper to request a correction to the melodramatic hyperbole that some reporters so often label as “news”.

    I earnestly hope that the grieving families in VA rise above the bullshit we are all now fed under the guise of “NEW$”. I hope too that all of us wake up and stand up for truth no matter the circumstances.

  5. […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptNo, 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 am, complete, that is, except for the 48-hour non-stop gnashing of teeth … […]

  6. What Rachel said.

    I don’t think sensational coverage, either on TV or in print, was unknown.

    I was back in the US last week. I was really struck by how bad the 24 hours news channels are and how great the newspapers are. The International Herald Tribune is no substitute for the New York Times or the Washington Post. There was so many good stories that I am more than willing to forgive them for devoting a lot column inches to Virginia Tech.

    Looking at the NY Times web page today, Ignoring the web only features, I think they got the coverage about right: two articles on the shootings, two articles about Iraq, one article on Iran and two articles on the Supreme’s abortion decision. The shelf life of the VA Tech story is very limited.

  7. Claire, that’s a horrible thing to have happened, and the detail about your late husband is horrific in its own way. My understanding is that a paper like the NY Times is obsessive about fact-checking in an obituary, precisely because grief magnifies the damage of a mistake.

  8. Rachel and Andrew (and implicitly Claire) are right; these stories, even thirty years ago, will get their moment of infamy.

    Rachel, the point about a half-hour special is not only right, it’s very revealing. The networks literally had no natural outlet for anything more than a few minutes coverage without them.

  9. Swanny said

    Yep, it was very, very different back in ’66 when Charles Whitman was atop that tower down at UT and they were broadcasting his shooting live.

    I wonder if there was much follow-up coverage…

    Texas Tower Shooting Video

  10. Swanny said

    Moktada al-Sadr’s peaceful overthrow of the Iraqi government

    What? He pulled his 6 guys out before Maliki sacked ’em and that’s a peaceful overthrow? Of what? Is it a coincidence that 190 people got blown up the day after he did that? I am disgusted by the use of the word peaceful in the same sentence with his name. It’s like saying, “peaceful leader Pol Pot” or “peaceful pogroms by Stalin.”

  11. Rachel said

    When you think about it, there was no other more likely evolution of the round-the-clock news on cable…what we see today is where the path of least resistance has taken us. That, and the accompanying expectation that we can watch *any* event unfold as it happens. In the early days of cable (at least in my house), I sat for hours on end keeping vigil while they unsuccessfully tried to retieve a six year old in Italy out of an artesian well and experienced both relief and joy as Baby Jessica was extricated out of her backyard hole, none-the-worse for the experience. I watched in real-time as hurricanes changed the landscape…and lives…many states away, as if my sleeping on the couch and hanging in there for the duration was somehow supportive.

    In those days, the media was less bold about sticking microphones in the face of the victims or grieving family members. Watching some of the interviews with the parents of one of the shooting victims yesterday, I was embarassed for the father as he rambled on, making not much sense to the outside world, about the wonderful son he had lost. I know that he agreed to the interview, but it still seems exploitative. And worse, when channel surfing hours later, I saw the same parents being interviewed again…dressed differently…by a different interviewer on another show. Is the willingness to give up one’s privacy during a time of loss just another by-product of the 24/7 news-watch? Has it become the accepted expectation that you will share your sorrow with the world?

    I clearly am part of the problem because I watch. I draw the line at Anna Nicole, but when something truly “big” happens, I’m there. And it bothers me more than a little that I find myself entertaining a momentary sense of irritation when something *hasn’t* been caught on video for me to see. Subconsciously, I’ve come to EXPECT to see the visuals, not just hear accounts of the story.

  12. Swanny, that’s a fair point about the bombings. I had in mind that al-Sadr didn’t have them killed or anything, Stalin-style. When he made them resign, it was pure power politics, but he has the power to do that because he in such control of so much violence.

  13. Swanny said

    How far we’ve come in 40 years…

    Live coverage of Charles Whitman on his Tower

  14. Swanny said

    It was six guys that he put into power anyway, of course he had the power to make them resign, they were his guys. Besides, Maliki was already in the process of either canning them outright or reducing their power so much through his cabinet reorganization that they were powerless. All this means is that Mookie’s gone from pretending to go along to outright armed opposition to the government through the Medhi. Kinda like if MoveOn.org had an armed resistance wing under the direct control of Dennis “the evil Elf” Kucinich that started killing folks who they felt were not sufficiently liberal while and bombing shopping malls in Republican neighborhoods demanding the resignation of the entire administration. That wouldn’t be right or defensible. Would it?

  15. Swanny, no it certainly wouldn’t be. “Peaceful” was a single adjective in a very tiny corner of this post, that I’ve already said was poorly chosen. Okay?

    Your point about Whitman is not only much more on-topic, it’s pretty interesting. It does show how far we’ve come, doesn’t it? Was it played endlessly at the time? Or was it replayed a few times, in the style of the half-hour special that Rachel spoke of?

    Did we have the means for it to be played on-demand? I’m not saying the top-down broadcast style was an ideal world. It’s great that a video can be played 900,000 times in the space of a couple of hours. But doesn’t that mean that the 7×24 broadcast playing of them is completely unnecessary? And the news networks can exercise even greater discretion than the major networks did in 1966, precisely because they can pepper their websites with whatever else they want to make available.

  16. Will said

    Claiming that there would have been only one article in the paper stuck me as well. I searched the NYT archive and (without buying the articles) they published 18 articles on the Texas sniper shootings from Aug. 2 to Aug. 4 1966. Eerily similar headlines, too.

  17. digglahhh said

    Literally, as I was reading this, a co-worker came up to me and asked me if saw all the “news” that came out about this guy…

    The story leaks everywhere. Baseball fans and Mets fans in particular had to learn that David Wright’s younger brother is an engineering student at Virginia Tech and he is okay. Um, okay… I’m sure that there are professional athletes who have family members living in, say, Camden, New Jersey. Should we be reassured about their safety every single day?…

    The story leaks everywhere except the places where it needs to go. That is what compounds the farce that is the round-the-clock news channel. They just get to avoid the real issues 24/7, while you average network only has to bury the collective lead for a few hours a day.

    The reporting of news is supposed to engage us in the process of making sense of the world and society in which we live. I have a greater understanding of this kid’s wardrobe and opinions on collegiate girls driving Mercedes Benzes, but not much else. Most of the news we are fed is just thinly veiled voyeurism.

    And the writings, my gosh… I’d like to thank our junior high English teachers in advance for reacting to this story without sufficient expertise and ensuring that we will not produce another Edgar Allen Poe or even Charles Bukowski.

  18. michaelgreenwell said

    i still think the more than 200 iraqis killed yesterday is a bigger story. unfortunately, most people do not see the lives of people in faraway places as important, or they ould not allow it to happen

  19. Swanny said

    I think that beings up an interesting issue. How many of the people who are upset by the coverage are upset over the coverage for it’s own sake and how many are upset that it’s pushing Iraq, Gonzalez and the GOP scandal du jour off the front page?

  20. digglahhh said

    That’s a good question, Swanny.

    Speaking for myself, I’m more upset about coverage of these types of events because they are explored very superficially but dominate the news nonetheless. I view them under the voyeurism umbrella, in a perverse sense they play on the same desires that celebrity gossip does. They are just not deserving of dominating the news. Not to mention, every time something like this goes down, the government capitalizes by releasing the passing of some horrible bill or terrible judicial decision or something in the hopes of it getting lost in the shuffle.

    Some people, I assume are just upset because they feel this coverage is insensitive. In one of the free papers I picked up getting on the train this morning there was a letter to the editor condemning them for displaying a picture of a bloodied body being carried off the campus. So, some people get offended by the story or coverage as a unique act.

    I’d guess that most people in the habit of following, critiquing and analyzing the news get angrier at the way these stories are prioritized than the amount of sensitivity they are handled with.

  21. Just as a data point, as the NY Times returns to more “balanced” coverage, Virginia Tech spanned the left-hand 3 columns of the front page, and the Supreme Court abortion ruling covered the right-hand 3 columns.

    Now SCOTUS v abortion had a very large headline, and the two VaTech stories did not, so in some sense it’s clear which is the main story today for the Times. However, Abortion didn’t go even to the fold while VaTech did – in one column, a little bit below and for another all the way to the bottom of the page.

    So the frontpage totals were 24 column inches for Abortion and 38.5 for VaTech and (of which, admittedly, 12 were a dramatic photo, which the Times now has routinely on the front page, often not tied to any story written about on the front page).

    Andrew, yes, compared to TV, this is balance. One of the most important SCOTUS rulings in years, a dramatic inflection point in a legal and political and cultural and even religious battle that has spanned three and a half decades is nearly as important as the second 24-hour period of yet another school shooting.

  22. The story leaks everywhere except the places where it needs to go.

    FR2, one of the French TV channels, had a story examining the purchase of handguns in France inspired by the VaTech shootings.

  23. 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.

    Dude, put that copy of Manufacturing Consent down and back away slowly.

  24. ClaireDePlume said

    Which writings Digglahhh? Who are “our junior high English teachers”?

  25. ClaireDePlume said

    Correction to Post 24 – accidentally omitted this quote I had pasted:

    “And the writings, my gosh… I’d like to thank our junior high English teachers in advance for reacting to this story without sufficient expertise and ensuring that we will not produce another Edgar Allen Poe or even Charles Bukowski.”

  26. digglahhh said

    There was all the talk about the macabre plays this young man had written and about how of his creative writing for English class depicted graphic and depraved violence.

    My remark was intended to be sarcastic but cautionary. I mean, is there really any doubt that a selection of unqualified, overzealous and reactionary English teachers (at any level) will assume emotional disturbance or psychological disorder on the part of students whose creative efforts are on the dark side?

    It’s the same dynamic as playing up threats to tear down civil liberties. These anecdotal horror stories become the basis for stifling creativity. Now, I realize the irony in my statement in so far as many of those writers were not particularly healthy themselves.

    Still, I can’t help but think about so many literary geniuses (some of them admittedly disturbed) and whether such great work would in exist in a world of armchair psychology.

  27. ClaireDePlume said

    This world is filled with ‘abnormalities’. Van Gogh, if put on happy pills, might never have painted A Starry Night. Einstein’s brain was “malformed”, Hemmingway after electro-shock treatment, took longer to write Kennedy’s acceptance speech than to pen “The Old Man and The Sea”. The brain is a mysterious and misunderstood thing. It’s ironic that those things which make us exceptional no matter which side of the line the exceptions fall on, distinguish us from the rest of the herd.

    Excuse my state of oblivion, but I chose not to feed the blood lust for news of this tragedy and boycotted reading one scrap of it (unlike the Gulf War which played on while I kept a 24/7, often sleeping vigil). That’s changed – ignorance of the dark side of our mental workings do not require we dwell on every piece of the puzzle. If we do not subscribe to it, the food supply of our lowest conscious level will shrivel and disappear. So too, might the political correctness which feeds itself by too often erring on the side of acceptance of just about anything. Perhaps crossing our “T’s” and dotting our “I’s” is best served with a rational finger, even those fickle fingers of English Teachers.

  28. Peet said


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