How TV News Plays to Our Darkest Fears

We have descended into the apocalyptic universe of 24-hour cable, where bad news is good news and extremely bad news is the best news of all

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Apocalypse always banner reads across explosion in the sky
We have descended into the apocalyptic universe of 24-hour cable, where bad news is good news and extremely bad news is the best news of all. (Shutterstock)

Breaking news: Something terrible has happened out there … calamitous … innocents have perished … it is beyond horrific. Instantly, TV newsrooms across America crackle. Adrenaline pumps. The on-camera anchors are visibly jazzed.

Excuse me? Jazzed? Ladies and gentlemen, we have descended into the apocalyptic universe of 24-hour cable, where bad news is good news and extremely bad news is the best news of all, meaning there will be year-end staff bonuses. Which raises the question: What kind of demented people are we?

We are a cable-news-watching people, that’s who. A few weeks ago I heard Robert Bryce, author of the book Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper, declare on a talk show that millions of Americans “aren’t happy unless they’re scared and miserable.” I assume he wasn’t just talking about devotees of Larry King’s vitamin infomercials. Fact is, the big cable channels incessantly tease the thrill of catastrophe: Either it’s about to happen or it just did. Scared yet?

When a mass casualty event occurs — the Newtown shootings, say, or the downing of the Malaysian airliner — barely an hour passes before hyper-caffeinated producers have created catchy graphics and even theme music for the miniseries they are rushing to launch. That’s either brilliant marketing or all kinds of icky, depending on your tolerance for revulsion.

“Personally, I hate that stuff,” says Michelle Kosinski, a longtime NBC News correspondent, now handling the White House beat for CNN. “The branding, the titles. It looks like a parody of news coverage.”

TV News Story Pull Quote

Blanketing one big story while short-shrifting others — as in CNN’s weeks-long Malaysia Flight 370 marathon — tends to attract viewership and mockery in equal measure. “After a few days of that kind of coverage, it can turn people off,” Kosinski says. Following a small Los Angeles earthquake in June, comedian Paula Poundstone tweeted: “Early reports say there was no dmage [sic] … but CNN will keep trying.” Ouch.

I reached out to a dozen TV insiders, and all agreed: What cable delivers on the heels of a tragedy may be unseemly and warped, but it’s also mesmerizing. “It always goes back to the mystery,” says Chris Ariens, managing editor of the TVNewser blog. “That’s the TV draw.”

“Why” is a reasonable thing to ask. However, “the country has many real problems, and the fixation on catastrophes amounts to so much wasted effort. It drives me crazy,” says Lauren Ashburn, a Fox News contributor. Terry Anzur, a TV-news coach who’s anchored for CBS and NBC, adds that, regrettably, cable news has degenerated “into a form of chicken.” It’s a game everyone is guaranteed to lose.

Look, there’s no gainsaying that the cable news crews have conspired to raise our national blood pressure. They giddily activate our night tremors because it means money, and because they can. The technology that allows cameras to go live anywhere, anytime is addictive. What news director is going to leave those cool toys in a box?

And almost always, we, the advertisers’ dupes — er, audience — will stay glued to the screen, no matter what. “When journalists are rewarded for viewership, there’s a perverse motivation to play into people’s attraction to freak shows and horror,” Danah Boyd, who works at Microsoft Research, wrote in an essay not long ago. She added that this occurs “regardless of the social consequences.”

Is there any way to defend the way cable gorges itself on these mortifyingly sad dramas? Probably not. “With all the new tools at our disposal, we might be better at chasing the moment, but we’re losing the meaning,” says Lisa McRee, a former co-anchor on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Maybe she should take it up with Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of public communication at American University in Washington, D.C., who argues that “these catastrophes are like Greek tragedies. TV understands our fears, our anxieties.” Ultimately, the professor says, the soap-operatic coverage of grand trauma “serves as a national binding experience.”

Only, of course, if we’re willing to be so bound. An alternative position is that, dependably, it’s not only tragic news that will keep breaking, but our collective national dignity as well.

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