The opening credits of HBO’s The Newsroom loop various shots of familiar graphics: “Special Bulletin,” “Special Report,” “Breaking News” along with shots of the most venerable of newsmen. There was a time when the rare use of one of those graphics with a serious news anchor gravely stating “This is breaking news!” would send alarm bells, catching the attention of anyone within listening range. It shouted “this is urgent; this is important.”
These days, at least on cable news, those jarring words are as likely to introduce the latest Hollywood divorce, the winner of Wimbledon, or a snowstorm (but only on the East or West Coast). There is no longer a sense of gravity, of urgency attached to "breaking news." No sense of "stop whatever you're doing and listen to this. You need to know it."
But even when the story is important, like last year’s remarkable Egyptian revolution, the continuing coverage, wall to wall, 24/7, can either strip an event of its urgency as loops of the same (often horrific) scenes are played over and over again—or conversely inflate it so far beyond its immediacy, that other, immediate, important, yet not as showy stories are ignored completely.
One of the subtler messages of last night’s (and very little about The Newsroom is what I would call subtle) episode of The Newsroom concerns the cable news tendency towards coverage overkill.
Framed around the 2010 Congressional elections, this week’s episode “The 112th Congress” takes on the Tea Party and the Koch brothers. But within that main story thread, news anchor Will MacAvoy (Jeff Daniels, in a wonderful performance) and his team also touches on the thwarted May 1, 2010 Times Square bombing attempt. They gave the story a shade over three minutes, enough to cover it, but not enough to bring in talking heads to drone on about terrorism, Muslim extremism, and not enough time to bring in the usual left and right suspects to argue about whatever they might find as political fodder. They also pick up on a largely ignored fact, missed or ignored by mainstream media as they debated terrorism by Muslim extremists: the bomb was reported originally by a Senegalese Muslim immigrant.