April 19, 2013 1:06pm PT by Tim Goodman
BREAKING: Criticism of Boston Bombing Coverage Won't Change Anything (Opinion)
If you were watching TV news cover the "fluid" events in Boston on Thursday night, while simultaneously witnessing Twitter implode from vitriolic annoyance at how bad the news media was handling things, you might have expected some soul-searching and swift change come Friday.
It didn't happen. Note: It never happens.
What we're witnessing is recycled media criticism that is now somehow considered exponentially magnified in the age of Twitter. Of course, Twitter itself is often overvalued as an accurate representation of the national discourse when it's really just a small fraction. Why is this? Because almost everyone in media uses Twitter.
Which means that all of the complaints leveled against television news -- a rush to judgment, blown facts, talking heads, recitation of rumors, ceaseless video played on a loop -- are not new at all, nor more urgent than before. They just seem more prevalent because Twitter makes it so.
And yet, that doesn't mean the argument isn't valued or needed. Television news, particularly 24-hour cable coverage, is essentially a master class in how to do journalism poorly. And so media critics -- and, yes, hordes of people who are mortified by what they see on their television screens -- write columns or take to social media and lambaste the offending parties. From CNN to Fox News, nobody -- from top management to reporters on the street and anchors telling them what a great job they've been doing -- is immune.
But here's the problem: There is never any change. There are no fixes. You might have thought CNN and others were more cautious after recent egregious errors coming out of the Boston reporting, but they weren't, really. Because the job of a 24-hour cable news channel is to have people constantly talking about the news, whether the story has moved an inch or not. It can't afford caution. Saying "we have no information" just makes people change the channel. Ratings plummet. People get fired.
And so what we've witnessed in the last 48 hours and continue to witness as the story unfolds, is the same rush to judgment, the same passing on of "news" that turns out to be untrue or non-existent. Only now it's wrapped in that clever news-speak that goes a little something like this: "We're hearing that there could be as many as five bombs and an entire cell of people involved, but again, we can't confirm this and will err on the side of caution until we can."
Clap. Clap. Clap. Well played.
So this is not a media criticism column. It's a column saying give up -- the war is over. You can't win -- and by you I mean media critics. None of the news organizations are listening. And the only people really concerned with your legitimate complaints are those people long since sickened by mainstream American news organizations who now prefer the BBC or online sites or whatnot.
See, the average consumer of Fox News or CNN or MSNBC, etc., either doesn't care or accepts the game for what it is. They know that mistakes in reporting are being made like a classic game of "telephone." But they don't care. Because watching is the thing. It has always been the thing. A manhunt for terrorists will drive cable ratings because people want to watch the news even if there is no news or if there's no as-yet accurate news. They will sit through the mistakes because they didn't go to journalism school or don't adhere to some notion that you should get the story right before you present it. Nope, they live in the world that CNN and Fox News executives understand all too well -- that news as spectacle, mistakes and all, is ultimately just visual information (or entertainment) that people won't turn away from. Those people who, even in our modern Twitter-fueled world of breaking news, have already turned away in search of something more complete and thorough, are not the target audience.
And hell if you're one of those get-it-right-before-you-give-it-to-me types, technology isn't really helping you at all. You might as well wait for the next day's New York Times story.
This is why cable news is immune to media criticism. It can't afford that kind of journalism. The ebb and flow of 24-hour news is a pretty simple supply and demand operation. When there's nothing on, you get packaged reports and some talking heads. If you want to juice those ratings you make the talking heads either prettier or more authoritative. Ah, but when there is actual news breaking with explosions and eye-witness accounts and police tape? The cameras are going to roll non-stop. This is when the ratings spike. This is when that same impulse to rubber-neck a freeway crash gets translated to TV news. People want to tune in and see something -- anything -- even if it's a misinformed reporter spouting conjecture into a live camera. Even if it's 25 seconds of video shown over and over again.
In Boston you've got the elements to hook people for endless hours. A terrorist attack. A manhunt. Video. A story that is not only ongoing but may take days to explain and expand on. CNN or MSNBC or Fox News doesn't give a damn at this moment how viciously The Daily Show is going to tear them apart. Now is the hour to keep the cameras rolling, keep the reporters and anchors talking incessantly, and trying to give viewers something fresh every five or 10 minutes, even if that amounts to an interview with an uncle who hasn't seen his extended relatives in years or even if it's former classmates who will describe the suspects as all people usually describe suspects -- quiet, nice, not the kind of person who would do such a thing.
All the pointless chatter, all the juicy hypothesis that may never be proven true -- that's ratings chum for TV news. And ratings are so much more important than impressing media critics with restraint, or a willingness to wait out truth or simply to stop talking when there's nothing to talk about.
This is how the game has been played for years now. And how it's always going to be played going forward. Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite are dead and forgotten. Channeling their ideals through media criticism is admirable and quaint, but ultimately pointless.