This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
The sordid spectacle of packs of journalists on live television combing through the intimate belongings of a married couple and dead terrorists in their abandoned apartment near San Bernardino was hardly inspirational. But it was hardly a new normal, either.
Journalists have hunted in packs since the dawn of their profession. What was unusual Dec. 4 was the laxity of local police in their failure to prepare the apartment’s landlord for the horde’s onset — and that the event aired live.
“Breaking News,” as the chyron loves to boast, is the killer app of 24-hour television news. Just as cable system operators rely on the appeal of live sports to prevent subscribers from cord-cutting, just as broadcasters rely on red-carpet awards shows and single-elimination reality TV contests to prevent viewers from defecting to online streaming, so cable news offers live coverage of headline events as they unravel as its unique journalistic proposition.
In recent weeks, as San Bernardino has followed the Planned Parenthood hostage siege in Colorado and the Bataclan concert hall massacre in Paris, it might seem as though live coverage on cable confines itself to mass shootings. But this is a twofold misapprehension.
First, live news can manifest itself in various formats, not just shootings. A pair of foundational events for the cable news industry consisted of the low-speed car chase of O.J. Simpson in 1994, followed by gavel-to-gavel coverage of his ultimate acquittal on murder charges: Both live; neither shootings. Politics, too, can make for riveting live television: Remember the Senate committee hearings into Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas in 1991 or the hanging-chad recounts in the 2000 presidential election. The Pentagon famously capitalized on cable news’ penchant for live footage by facilitating embedded war correspondents’ coverage of the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Second, very few so-called mass shootings, of the hundreds that occur nationwide each year, rise to the level of newsworthiness to attract saturation coverage on the cable channels. (By the way, the use of the word “mass” is such hype. In San Bernardino, fewer than two score were hit by bullets. In no other context are so few considered masses.)
The carnage in San Bernardino attracted the attention of cable news even before the identities and allegiances of the killers were discovered. Its interest was piqued not just by the large number of dead but by the unusual nature of the attack: not a lone suicidal gunman found dead on the scene but a trio of male attackers (it was reported at the time) who killed and escaped alive. This anomaly prompted the national networks to stick with the story through a fatal police shootout with an SUV, documented live from news helicopters of their local affiliates and aired during the nightly news time slot.
It was here that the conflicting priorities of cable news — to cover breaking events live — and an old-school newscast became jarringly obvious. The newscast normally would have aired well-written, tightly edited, informative journalism. The pre-empting live coverage contained none of those elements. It delivered no fact-checked knowledge, no concise writing, no edited video — just the helicopter feed.
Going live was the killer app; it trumped all other journalistic virtues. And the same applied when that landlord let those cameras into that dead couple’s abandoned apartment.
Andrew Tyndall is an independent news analyst and publisher of The Tyndall Report.