CNN – Addicted to the Big Story

I have to admit it; I’m a cable news junky.  I start my day checking out the latest news on CNN while having my first cup of coffee.  I also check in briefly with CNN several times a day to catch any late breaking developments.  Then if I can’t find anything interesting to watch in the evening on my other favorite TV channels (History, Discovery, Sci-Fi, and National Geographic), I might also catch some evening CNN programming.  However, ever so often CNN goes to a place where even I cannot follow.

It is not unusual for CNN to consider a new event to be so big, so compelling that they chose to commit nearly all their resources to it and cover it wall to wall, in great detail, devoting much of their air time to its coverage.  Two notable examples were terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings.  These are the kind of stories were CNN is apt to go “all in” in poker terms. It is something that CNN does very well.  It is also a area where they seem to have a resource advantage over their chief rival networks, Fox and NSNBC, which appear to be more geared to providing slanted political coverage than delivering hard news.  CNN management probably justifiably believes that they can increase their rating substantially by providing expanded coverage of big events.

No one can argue with CNN’s extensive coverage of events such as 9/11 and the Boston bombing.  These were events which delivered vicious blows to the nation’s physic, touching almost everyone at a very basic level.  The general population found the coverage profoundly compelling – it was like a train wreck we might witnessed in person – it was difficult to look away even if we wanted to.  In both cases CNN committed a large percentage of its resources and air time to coverage of these tragedies.  In such situations CNN’s extensive coverage of the event could be classified as a national public service.  The fact that CNN’s ratings increased significantly during these periods of coverage can be viewed as coincidental.  CNN attracted more viewers because they were doing their job well.

However, in other cases CNN’s coverage, of a “big” story is more about ratings than anything else.   In such cases, the public interest is to a large extent manufactured by the media.   Recently the CNN producers apparently decided that the Jodi Arias trial merited big coverage with multiple updates every hour on CNN as the trial progressed.  CNN legal experts prattled on endlessly with analysis of blow by blow accounts of the trail.  The CNN Headline News channel carried the trial live.  While Arias’ murder of her Mormon lover, Travis Alexandra, might have been a bit more interesting than the many other murder trials which took place across the country at the same time, it certainly didn’t merit the kind of attention CNN gave it.  It was a blatant attempt by CNN to hook more viewers into the soap opera trail.  It wasn’t so much news, as it was pure entertainment.

Well over a hundred and fifty people thousand people are reported missing every year.  With the possible exception of a celebrity who suddenly disappears, you would think that the story on anyone of those missing people would not be treated to major ongoing coverage by a news network like CNN.  However, when a pretty, blond 18 year old girl went missing on the exotic island of Aruba while on a high school graduation trip, CNN and other cable new outlets saw the tragedy as an opportunity to catch the public’s attention and pull in more viewers.  They sent several reporters down to Aruba (a nice gig if you can get it) to cover the Natalee Holiday story and send back several televised reports back every hour. The coverage continued for weeks though there was usually nothing new of substance to report.  Another made for TV reality soap opera manufactured by the news networks.

Yet CNN’s coverage of the Jodi Arias trial and the Natalee Holiday disappearance both pale in comparison to the attention the network is giving to the disappearance of  Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  As soon as the plane was reported missing, there wre the usual breaking news reports.  However, when details became available and it became apparent that that large Boeing 777 with its 239 passengers and crew on board had gone missing under very mysterious circumstances, the producers at CNN saw a BIG story and went “all in”. They flew reporters to Malaysia, rounded up experts in aviation, radar, aircraft recovery, and anyone else remotely connected to the situation and began devoting up to 90% of their air time to the story.

The first two or three days went as expected for a breaking story with new development becoming available at fairly regular intervals. The fact that many of the developments being newly reported seeming to contradict one another only added to the interest.  Then the pace of the story slowed considerably with new developments were being reported every ever lengthening intervals.  Rather than dropping back and covering only the story’s occasional new developments as they occurred which would have allowed them to resume coverage other interesting stories around the world, CNN wouldn’t/couldn’t turn loose of their BIG story and continued their wall to wall coverage.  Each new occasion development was reported endlessly through out the day, each time under the heading of “Breaking News” even hours after they were first put on screen.  Never mind that that some of the “developments” were second hand reporting of another new agency’s stories which had little or no verification and which were later never heard again.

CNN continued to cover the aircraft’s disappearance almost exclusively while other important stories went uncovered.  CNN filled in air time with reports and interviews from their reporters on the scene and endless hours of interviews with experts of every type and description whose field was even remotely connected to a plan disappearance crash.  CNN viewers, who bothered to watch, have seen endless technical explanations over and over again on every thing from aircraft black boxes to satellite imagery, to underwater remote vehicles sonar and/or photo imaging capabilities. There were endless satellite images of “debris” floating in the ocean which may or far more likely did not come from the plane.    As the emergence of new information about the lost aircraft slowly began to a trickle in, the CNN on screen personalities conducting the expert interviews began to ask about “what if” scenarios and the secession sometimes degenerated into speculations, and even speculation about speculations.

However, since March 8th CNN has devoted much of its resources and most of its air time to covering a story about which sill very little is known.  We still don’t know what happened, we don’t know why it happen, and we aren’t even sure that we know the plane’s direction or travel, how fast it was going, or how long it stayed in the air. The experts evidently aren’t even certain in which huge section to the Indian Ocean to center their search for plane debris. It has been 21 days since the Flight 370 went missing and they still haven’t found the first parcel of debris from the aircraft.  What it comes down to is that CNN has spent 21 days covering nothing of real substance.

If conversations with my wife and others I have discussed this topic with are any indication, the general public as long since grown tired of this story. While interesting, at least at first, it doesn’t really resonate with Americans other than to vow to never fly Malaysian Airline, or the carriers of other third word nations. I think that when many Americans tune into to CNN for their daily dose of news and the first thing they see and hear is more coverage of Flight 370, they get turned off and change the dial. They appear to be saying, “There is a lot of important events going on now; go cover something else for awhile and come back to this story when you have something substantial to report. CNN may be pulling in a few new people with this story, but it has gotten to the point that they are turning off some of their most fateful viewers.

So why isn’t CNN pulling back more than they are from a story which is not going anywhere fast?  After all while they are spending much of their of their air time and resources covering a story that is now tending to be boring, the Russians have annexed the Crimea and have been massing over 100,000 troops and equipment on the Ukraine border for what could be an all out invasion. If Putin sends his troops over the border the world economy will certainly be adversely affected and the US and Europe could be drawn into a shooting war and.  How much time and resources has CNN spent covering this story? – not much.  Meanwhile the Darrington, Washington mudslide disaster continues to unfold.  At this writing 21 people are known dead and anther 30 are still missing. There are unanswered questions why authorities allowed people to continue build in an area known for such mudslides, but CNN is only occasionally covering the recovery of victims and certainly has done no in depth reporting about the disaster’s ramification.  They have been too busy covering the Flight 370 story. They have also covered very little the political developments which they normally report on a regular basis.  Heaven knows how many other stories have gone uncovered or under covered in the last three weeks.

As I write this the network is now starting to devote more time to other news stories in the last few days, but at least 40% to 50% of CNN air time is still focused on Malaysia and the middle of the Indian Ocean.  It is like the network has hit the Flight 370 tar baby with all might and is now having a lot trouble extricating itself from the sticky mess. They still think it is an important story, and is if only because this inexplicable event is likely to change the way passenger jets are tracked.  However, what they apparently fail to realize is that the American public is no longer as interested as their network appears to be. After all, how long do they expect that the typical CNN viewer will stay interested in never ending coverage of a story where precious few details are doled out in drips and drabs and then much of that information is later revealed to have been inaccurate.  While is some ways CNN is the victim of the unprofessional manner in which the Malaysian government has lead this investigation, they are the one telling the story.

Sooner or later they are going to start backing away. During the aftermath of the Air France disaster recovery experts pinpointed the site of the crash within a few days and it still took over two years to find the plane’s black boxes. We are now twenty three days out from disappearance of Flight 370 and they haven’t found the first piece of debris yet.  And when they do, it will have drifted hundreds of miles from the crash site where the plane probable lays a mile or more down on the ocean bottom.  The realization is finally setting in that this plane may never be found.  Questions are already being asked about how much longer the countries involved will be willing to continue to commit the resources necessary to sustain the massive search effort.  A corollary question might be how long CNN be willing to continue to commit substantial resources and the large amounts of airtime to cover this never ending story.

Cajun  3/31/14

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