When not being function, form can also be indictment: The coverage of the Louisiana theater shootings as pounced upon by CNN and MSNBC in the manner of a terrier shaking a rat to death is more about the state of cable journalism than the awful incident being reported on.
Let me stress that the theater shootings were tragic and irrefutably an important local / regional event in Louisiana. But scaled-up to a national story with little or no connection or context, with each detail as important as every detail and suffused with equal parts of apophenia and conjecture, it is a microcosm of much of what’s wrong with television news.
The problem starts with the nationalizing of a local / regional story. In Louisiana, this story is of critical informational value to the local citizens — it’s happening in their backyards and possibly involves people they know or perhaps even them. Did their daughters go to that movie? Should they lock the doors and shelter-in-place? What streets are affected by the police investigation? Will events scheduled for tomorrow take place? Real concerns.
But now scale-up that local / regional story to national proportions. Most actionable aspects of the news instantly disappear. What remains is the possibility that the viewer might know someone in the region. But statistically this is slim reason to take the story national in a non-stop fashion. The sane call would be to break into scheduled programming and let us know something is happening. And then on the half hour give us, say, a three-minute update. Repeat as necessary. But this never happens.
So without direct viewer connection to the event being covered and the absence of actionability in the news being reported, what accounts for the non-stop nationalization of this type of story? Or perhaps a better way to ask this is why doesn’t this happen to to all local / regional news? What are the parameters for nationalization? And, just as importantly, why, after all this time, do we the viewers have to ask? Had one person been shot in the theater, would non-stop coverage have ensued? What if no one had been injured? Or what if it had been a fatal, armed robbery in front of the theater — same drifter, same gun, same theater? Are we in non-stop coverage mode now? Is the Breaking News banner scrolling across the bottom of our screens? In this last hypothetical, I’m inclined to say no, probably we’re not nationalizing a fatal, armed robbery in a theater parking lot in Louisiana. At least not in second-by-second, non-stop fashion. So what accounts for the difference?
My theory, be it ever so ugly, is that the Media likes — for lack of a better term — bad news with “good bones,” bad news that offers the most potential for dramatic “narrative,” the kind of drama that attracts and holds more viewers which, in turn, increases ratings, which translates into more advertisers and higher ad rates. Because news divisions haven’t been in the news business for a very long time — they’re blatant corporate revenue streams. This, of course, could be an essay in itself, but for now let’s take it as a given.
So the Media, chasing market share, nationalizes what it hopes is high-drama news — strong emphasis on hope. Because what if a story has the scale, but not the drama–or at least the preferred level of drama? As noted above, a nationalized local / regional story inherently has direct connection and actionability stripped from it. And this is a problem, because connection and actual affect on viewers are what imbue news with genuine impact.
Faced with this dilemma, the Media reaches for the equivalent of journalistic steroids to bulk-up the story. First and foremost, they frame it as Important: every aspect is Breaking News, and as near as I can determine, Breaking News has a half-life that rivals plutonium. I’ve seen news stories 12 hours old — stories that happened in the early evening of the night before still being called Breaking News in the late morning of the next day. And you have too — we all have. I wonder why we don’t talk about this? I wonder why the alarm bells inside our heads don’t go off? Because after all, “suspension of disbelief” is not the best mindset for being informed of possibly important stuff by strangers.
I have a theory about this too: We engage in suspension of disbelief regarding Breaking News status because at some level we understand that what we’re watching is narrative, not reporting. Hell, cable news people have even taken to calling it that within their reports. The Narrative. Yes, it means “account,” but just as often it means “literary story.” And isn’t this what’s happening? The smudging of nationalized local / regional story with dramaturgy?
What else explains that soundtrack music in news reports which cues the audience how to feel–those terrible synthesized loops of mournful strings in stories about death, and the major-key orchestral riffs on Aaron Copland in reports on heroism–they’re imposed, dramatic flourishes pure and simple. The smudging of news reporting with dramaturgy also accounts for the fact that individual news stories now have logos. Think about that–we’re not talking about helpful info-graphics that offer viewers insight, but the literal branding of news reports. A town is leveled by a tornado and someone in the art department works out what typeface best suits the catastrophe and which color palette best conveys desolation and lost lives. The result is that if you regularly watch, say, CNN, you recognize the news-logo for that missing Malaysian plane as instantly as a Nabisco box in the cracker aisle at the store. So yeah–CNN mission presumably accomplished, but to what end? How is this consumer recognition of a news story beneficial in terms of viewer understanding? How is it even helpful? To make it easier for you to realize you’re watching the “wrong” missing plane coverage on another network? Logo-fication of the news doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because it’s also just theatrical flourish overlaid on the news.
News-As-Dramaturgy can also be seen in all those needless remotes by photogenic anchors who are essentially news presenters even if they do persist in calling themselves “managing editors.” Stop and ask yourself–why did Brian Williams need to stand in front of the tornado-desolated town? In what way did Williams being there enhance your understanding of the disaster? Certainly no more than if Williams had tossed to a field reporter from his studio desk. Remotes by anchors are for the anchors, not the viewers. They are Edward R Murrow Fantasy Camps for the pretty-faced, desk-bound and bored. It allows the anchors to pull out the trench coats / bush jackets / parkas / tight black tee shirts and pretend they have in-the-field street cred that’s no longer there (if, indeed, it ever was). In an age of slashed news division budgets, on-location destruction and war are used more as low-cost sets and found special effects than as a way to genuinely deepen viewer knowledge of the event being reported on. Be honest–is your take-away from the report that featured the reverse tracking shot of tee-shirt clad Anderson Cooper confidently striding through that bazaar with the difficult name (that he pronounced perfectly) deeper than had it not been done? Neither is mine.
Also be assured of this: If News-As-Dramaturgy somehow doesn’t occur, it’s never from the Media’s lack of trying: Stripped of genuine drama, cable news must somehow inject it–in the case of breaking news, with no time to find a soundtrack or a logo or a safe, on-site place for the anchor to stand, this happens frequently.
One way it’s done is through fetishizing detail. For the Media, this feels right because it still labors under the delusion that, in best cases, journalists can be empiricists — which, of course, they never can be in any circumstance. Empiric journalism is J-School aspirational bullshit that groundlessly teaches reporters can rise above all personal agendas and focus solely on the inherent truth of their stories. This too is an essay in itself — and once again, for the purposes of this piece, let’s accept it as a given. It’s easy (and, drama-wise, beneficial) to fetishize detail. It’s no surprise, then, that the Media always seems to engage in micro-granularity regarding nationalized local / regional stories. In the absence of meaningful context for a national audience, high-def detail is substituted.
And thus, on the outskirts of Washington, DC, I’m told with particular urgency that the Louisiana theater in which the shootings took place was showing Trainwreck, that the shooting took place during the film’s credit sequence, that the theater was a multiplex and that one of the other films being shown was Minions. And then, for even greater accuracy, they correctthe previously reported number of screens in the theater. All of these hi-def details are reported to a national audience as if they comprise some sort of coded insight that would Explain Everything if only we could decrypt it. But here’s the thing: all facts aren’t equal. Some facts mean nothing at all — some mean jack shit, pure and simple.(This theater shooting makes me recall the one in Aurora, Colorado. The meaningless details there were Batman film and midnight showing, which also didn’t enhance — much less explain — well, anything.)
But then something else happens: The details the Media fetishize weirdly trigger the next substitute for genuinely impactful news: it allows for on-air apophenia. In the absence of context and early-stage meaning, the Media sees patterns in everything. (In the reporting of the Aurora shootings, I remember a long on-air discussion about the shooter’s red henna not accurately mirroring The Joker’s hair color. Which neatly led us to . . . what exactly? Certainly not insight or meaning.)
With regard to the Louisiana story, I heard a CNN anchor solemnly opine that 59-year-old white guys simply don’t go to movies like Trainwreck. (Confession: I’m an older white guy who went to Trainwreck because I have this thing for Tilda Swinton–sue me.) And having crossed over into the realm of walls covered in photos connected to each other by crisscrossing colored yarn, that same CNN anchor added that, of course, Trainwreck was a comedy. You know: a comedy. Come on, a comedy! I had to switch the coverage off before CNN’s journalistic integrity demanded that they correct themselves and depict it as more accurately the credit sequence of a comedy that old white guys don’t see that was one theater over from Minions because, damn it all, this is really, really, really important and may Explain Everything. Plus Amy Schumer, because why not? It’s the narrative-enhancing celebrity of Amy Schumer!
Meanwhile, over on MSNBC, a retired FBI profiler who was asked about the Louisiana shootings immediately segued into his previous talking points about the military recruiting station attacks — because, presumably, gunsand one-size-fits-all insight. So much granularity, so many patterns, so little meaning — for hours on end, and sometimes for days . . .
This, friends, is cable news running at cruising speed — it’s a fair representation of what it does 24 / 7 regardless of what’s being covered, from Balloon Boy (awkward one, that) to the second-by-second coverage of Ted Cruz reading Green Eggs And Ham between his Darth Vader impressions. Non-stop coverage of everything, where everything is louder than everything else.
This is how we become desensitized to genuinely important things — like the policy positions of people who would be President of the United States. When you see the same grave, lean-into-the-camera urgency used to detail Cruz’s fondness for Doctor Seuss, NASA discoveries about Pluto, the possible importance of Rom-Com credit sequences to homicidal drifters, the finer points of the Iran nuclear weapons deal, Trump saying he’d get a new haircut if elected and the impact of the Greek economy collapsing — the verysame urgency — chaff and grain forever remain unseparated.
Do you know what’s just as important in journalism as getting the story right? Its implied mission to curate the news for us. The importance of what used to appear above the front-page fold is even more important now that we can be literally washed away by ceaseless events from everywhere. But that’s a responsibility that cable news — and maybe all news reporting — has abdicated. Everything is louder than everything else. There is no longer a reasoned approach regarding what appears above the metaphoric fold.
The knee-jerk critique has been to blame the never-ending news cycle. But I think that’s only part of it. Look at the abject curation failure of broadcast evening news — there the problem of endless space to fill doesn’t exist. They’re 30-minute shows, 12 minutes of which is advertising. So yeah, 18 minutes of national and world news once a day — at least that’s the theory, however antiquated. But the network news divisions suck at it. I don’t miss Brian Williams because he sucked as a curator of news and now it’s Lester Holt’s turn to equally suck. The broadcast news divisions are incapable of properly curating 18 minutes of daily events. Let that sink in.
“Person Of The Week” feel-good moments, tips — I kid you not — about using a zip line, “Making A Difference” heart-tugging, celebrity divorces, et al. Everything louder than everything else — and endless space to fill has nothing to do with it.
But news-as-revenue-stream sure does. Which means attracting more of the senior demo for all those medication ads targeting the Silver Set. And so within that 18 minutes a happy senior-friendly “Making A Difference” displaces yet another hard and possibly grim news story.
I wish I had a big ending here — some sort of Perry Mason moment or Property Brothers reno reveal — but I don’t. The solution is obvious: journalism should not be a revenue stream, and most certainly not a profit center. Which is another way of saying that journalism should be excused from seeking advertising-friendly ratings (because remember — it’s not just viewers, it demographically correct viewers). But this isn’t going to happen. At least, I can’t see a way that it will: The News Purist Revolution will not be occurring, much less televised.
But perversely that won’t stop me from calling out the news divisions on their many abdications. Because even as reporting becomes increasingly ephemeral and the viewers increasingly ignorant of important, meaningful events, I take a grim pleasure in seeing and identifying this slo-mo slide into The New Dumb. And, yes, in doing this, I understand that I’m effectively Kevin McCarthy in the director’s intended conclusion to Invasion Of The Body Snatchers: Running into traffic screaming that the New Dumb of corporate-run news divisions is here, but knowing, along with you, that, for all my arm-waving, it’s not going to end well.