WSJ’s Daniel Henninger with another indictment of cable news melodrama:
- What in the name of Edward R. Murrow is going on here? Once upon a time, TV people wished upon a star that some day there would be stations devoted entirely to news so they could show just what real journalists they were. That day arrived, and anyone with the stamina to “stay with us” in recent days began to feel like the soul in the famous Bob Dylan song: “You know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”
An expert: “You don’t want to be hit with a bullet like this.” An anchor: “We have an e-mail from Jef.” A question: “Is there any sense that parents are upset that the police withheld this information?”
We saw David Kaczynski, who turned in his homicidal brother, discuss “What if you have serious suspicions about someone in your own family?” As he soberly answered this question we’ve all wrestled with, a grim trailer of victim photos passed across the screen, followed by footage of crazy Ted himself in chains.
TV is the most voracious medium ever invented. Every minute, every hour, unto Sisyphean eternity all-news on cable has to pump out something, and what it pumps is an ever-open hydrant of talk by anchors, reporters and “experts.” I even saw Col. David Hackworth; he does Iraq, he does Afghanistan, he does local shootings. And while the talk runs, we watched footage of events that were live or were once live. Milling squads of “authorities,” acres of yellow tape, choppers in the sky, last week’s crime scenes and this week’s, that window with the bullet hole.
There are graphics. MSNBC did a piece on .223 bullets–sensuously photographing a circle of beautifully lit, copper-colored bullets while a voice described the “kinetic energy” and “havoc” of this “extremely powerful round.” When CNN, the “Sniper on the Loose” channel, took a commercial breath, it played an ominous drum–boom, boom, boom, boom.
All day it ran on, flowing across the screen and dumping out into the bottomless catch basins known as our brains. Nothing else I know of creates such a discontinuous mix, other than dreams and night sweats. (Not movies, whose every frame has been thought about for effect and purpose.)
The “news” itself on cable TV at times such as this is almost perfectly analogous to raw FBI files–a compost of fact, rumor, hearsay and speculation. The FBI keeps this dangerous stuff locked up. But on TV, when you’ve exhausted the facts, you go with what you’ve got, which may be mostly thin air. You go with it anyway.
….Not since long ago when villagers whispered that witches danced in the night-forest, has mere rumor been elevated to such high status in the life of a society. Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose deserves the honor of a dinner for refusing, with dignity, to participate in this ritualistic rumor-mongering that has become a staple of American news gathering.
But stay with us. We’re now listening to a clinical psychologist discuss “fear.” “There are so many people in the D.C. area, Chris, who are terrified to leave their homes. What do we do about this?” Here we arrive at the heart of the problem. Why all the melodrama?
Gathering information live on TV is difficult, and you could perhaps excuse some of the rough edges (and yes, good work gets done). But cable doesn’t trust the news alone to hold an audience. So everything it does gets infused with the theatrical techniques of melodrama. Anything real or human is exaggerated and milked for effect (but never milked dry). Anchorly voices, from Brian Williams down to the lowliest sub, rumble with melodramatic inflection. CNN: “Chillldren could be targeted aany place, aaany time. This is affecting parents aalllll across the region.” Boom, boom, boom.
What Henninger doesn’t mention is that these stations are in business to make money – period – and the kind of in depth, reasoned reporting and analysis that he advocates is expensive and less immediate. Live (local) on the scene reporting, interviews, and the endless chatter of “experts” is cheap and immediate. Melodrama grabs wandering viewers by the throat and costs nothing extra. Put them together and you have the television news of today: it certainly isn’t just cable that answers to these sins. Cable news just has more time to fill and its excesses and deficiencies are just more obvious. What else would you expect?