Thursday, August 19, 2004

The Cable News Super-Story

It’s good that we have several cable channels dedicated to round the clock news. And even within the round-the-clock news business there are channels dedicated exclusively to specific topics like finance, sports, headlines, etc. This is all for the good.

What I’m not wild about is the obsessive search that goes on at all times for the “Super Story”, a news story that can be milked for months and months at the exclusion of everything else. It all started in 1995 with OJ. This was the first super story. Don’t you remember how during that entire year it was all OJ, all the time?

Here’s my thesis, and if it’s true then it’s very disturbing. The structure of 24 hour news requires that the journalists find stories that can be reported on endlessly, constantly, with little to no updates of consequence for months at a time. It needs to be a story suitable for endless discussion on talking head programs, where guests can speculate and ramble on for hours. It’s all because of the format of 24 hours news. This consideration of finding a story with long-term reporting prospects contaminates the decision process of what is newsworthy and what is not. A dog can chew on a bone for hours, but he’ll be done with a steak in 90 seconds. Because of this reasoning, we the viewers are served the “bone” of the Scott Peterson trial, and denied the Porterhouse of say, a report on the erosion of democracy in Musharraf’s Pakistan.

The cable news networks need stories that can fill time, and they all know that an all-consuming Super Story, like OJ, brings in the viewers and the advertising revenue like no other news can. So they must constantly look for the super story, and reject items that don’t fit that mold.

The result is that what is “news” has changed. I’m no fan of Bill Clinton, but I’ll make this concession for him. It was the hunger for the Super Story that catapulted “Monica Lewinsky” (the scandal, not the person) into a yearlong drama. This may be a stretch, but cable news and the Super Story phenomenon may have led indirectly to Clinton’s impeachment because the fires of that scandal were stoked so well for so long. Back in the days when news was just the paper in the morning and Tom Brokaw in the evening, “Monica Lewinsky” might have just been a week of embarrassment for the president rather than a yearlong ordeal.

Let’s be clear on some basic facts. Scott Peterson is not news. Nor is Kobe Bryant, nor Michael Jackson.

Elian Gonzales was not news. Gary Condit was not news.

The missing girl-of-the-week is not news. The political smear book-of-the-week is not news. The celebrity breakup-of-the-week is not news.

Occasionally, what I’ll call “real news” and the Super Story are both the same. This was the case with 9/11 and both Gulf Wars. These kinds of occasions are when cable news and their 24 hour capabilities really shine. When real news can be reported 24/7, outlets like CNN kick into high gear and do a great job. But most of the time, what we see on CNN is not real news.

The reason we heard so much about Elian Gonzales beyond the point of all reason is because the cable channels were desperately groping for the Super Story. Isn’t that stupid? Elian wasn’t big news because he was big news, he was big news because the story had legs, could be discussed indefinitely and brought in viewership. This in turn caused other news media to report more on Elian, like the newspapers and the network newscasts and the internet. I believe that the reason your local paper had so much to say on Elian Gonzales was because they were taking their cues from CNN, MSNBC and Fox, all of which are looking for the Super Story, not what's really important.

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