Waiting for the Latest, Greatest News Story to Advance

After announcing the historic bin Laden news, cable news channels are struggling, again, with how to say something fresh
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Both the value and the limitations of 24-hour cable news channels have been on display since Sunday night’s news of Osama bin Laden’s death startled (and elated) much of the country. It was a story so momentous and unexpected that it jolted the entire country. Here we had a chunk of history unfolding deep in the night on the East Coast and rattling primetime on the West Coast. It was a nonpartisan dream story for every news channel in existence.

But as each hour passes, viewers are now seeing a lot more of the limitations and less of the value that round-the-clock coverage brings.

This in itself is not breaking news. Cable news outlets have been one-dimensional for years now, unable or unwilling to become something greater and more useful.

But once again, a major story like the death of bin Laden has proved that the model every newscast is using is flawed.

The issue is oversaturation combined with a lack of forward progress. Flocking to cable news is what modern viewers do when major news breaks because the networks have proved that they can’t be trusted to cut into their regularly scheduled programming, nor stay on very long when they do.

But you can always find a cable channel willing to cover a story nonstop. Therein lies the problem. In real life, you wouldn’t tolerate a friend, co-worker or even a spouse telling you the same story over and over again. That’s the domain of 6-year-olds and, sadly, addled seniors.

And yet the news channels can’t break their addiction to repetition because the target audience is, supposedly, insatiable for updates, for new information of almost any kind and will stare at the screen until they get it. When it doesn’t arrive, viewers are supposed to listen to experts and talking heads opine six ways to Sunday on the topic at hand until there’s a microscopic movement in the story. When news bookers run out of “experts,” they let the anchors talk among themselves — backed by countless still photos and video snippets viewers have seen countless times.

That’s why MSNBC had Chris Matthews talking to people who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks — to find out how they felt now. It’s why Piers Morgan talked to bin Laden’s former sister-in-law, Carmen bin Laden, to find out insider knowledge of the Bin Laden Way. He might as well have conjured the ghost of Carmen Miranda for all the good it did.

Others continued their people-on-the-street coverage — high-def jubilation of American flags and chants of “USA! USA!” at Ground Zero. The main network news anchors all found their way to that hallowed ground Monday night. On CNN, Anderson Cooper noted perceptibly that it was still very much a working construction site — hence the grating noise that battled his attempts to explain the low-tech animation of what the attack on the bin Laden compound really looked like.

Progress? Not so much.

You couldn’t fault every news organization for getting in on the glory — and make no mistake, the story was told as the glory of good triumphing over evil, even if more even-keeled coverage noted that al Qaeda and terrorism itself hadn’t actually ended on Sunday.

But forward momentum was nowhere. Neither was the elephant in the room – photos of bin Laden dead, or the dumping of his body at sea. Surprisingly, late Monday, there wasn’t even a discussion I could find on any channel about a photo that popped up online claiming to be the dead body of bin Laden. Not even a discussion of whether it was real or fake. Don’t these channels have someone monitoring the Internet? Come on.

The only significant movement on the story — that the Navy SEALs who raided the bin Laden compound had found a treasure trove of information — provided only a small window of freshness, as experts mused on whether there was any “actionable intelligence” in the findings that the U.S. could “exploit” (the latter word being government verbiage that is now part of every anchor’s vocabulary). But most channels gave that news short-shrift, preferring to revert to old footage of bin Laden roaming the hills or looking serene in still photos.  Roughly 24 hours after the news broke, the story was stagnant on television.

All viewers got were videos of the million-dollar “mansion” in Pakistan where bin Laden was discovered (and not one comment I heard about how a million dollars in the Second World doesn’t buy you much curb appeal).

If the news outlets were struggling to advance the story — and unwilling to move onto such topics as the natural disaster in the South, updates on Japan (remember that story?) — then viewers were smart to turn the channel. If they did, here’s hoping they landed on any number of late-night talk shows, where everyone from Jon Stewart to David Letterman to Jimmy Fallon and others had a field day with bin Laden’s fate.

Maybe that would have been a good story for the cable channels to cover: how a nation uses humor to not only get through a tragedy 10 years in our conscience but to celebrate the karma and revenge of military justice.

Of course, that would have required someone in the cable news universe to get out of the office and break the cycle of telling us again what we already know.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine