Cable News' Biggest Problem
Bin Laden story proves again that viewers lose interest when there's no new information.
The 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 everyone. Here we had a chunk of history unfolding deep in the night on the East Coast and rattling primetime in the West. It was a nonpartisan dream story for every news channel.
But with each passing hour since the story broke May 1, viewers have seen a lot more of the limitations that round-the-clock coverage brings and less of the value.
The 24-hour cable news outlets have been one-dimensional for years, unable or unwilling to become something greater and more useful to breaking news. But again, a major story has shown that the model every newscast uses 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 they can't be trusted to cut into regular scheduled programming or stay on very long when they do.
But you can always find a cable channel -- often several -- 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.
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 microscopic movement in the story. When news bookers run out of "experts," they let the anchors talk among themselves.
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 get 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. On CNN, Anderson Cooper noted perceptively that it is 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 looked like.
You couldn't fault every news organization for getting in on the glory. Part of the reason newscasts lean toward overkill is that when there's a major story, ratings skyrocket -- the numbers around the bin Laden death news were huge -- and cutting away to another story can send ratings into a spiral. Newscasts will want to keep milking the rare moment when cable news channels are elevated to must-see TV status.
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. (The White House was still debating whether to release photographic proof at press time.) Surprisingly, late May 2 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" (a government-speak word that is now part of every anchor's vocabulary). But most channels prefered to revert to footage of bin Laden roaming the hills. 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 bucks 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 on to such topics as the natural disaster in the South or updates on Japan (remember that whole thing?) -- 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 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 also 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.