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It’s Time to Re-Think the Purpose of 24/7 Cable-TV News

It's Time to Re-Think the Purpose of 24/7 Cable-TV News

The Boston Marathon bombings and manhunt stories underscored the viability of continuous news coverage, particularly during a major event. 

When something major shakes us to the core, we tend to keep our eyes glued to he TV screen — and that tends to mean that we follow the action and analysis on CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNBC, Al Jazeera, the BBC or some other credible source of information and commentary.

But the Boston saga also illustrated the weaknesses and frailties of the genre. I know, I know: 24/7 news is a part of the fabric of American life. In the United States, it is now theater to watch the folks at Fox and MSNBC, the most strident political  cable operations of all, have at their foes. 

As it turned out, the most vivid — and best over all — job of reporting was done by veteran journalist Seth Mnookin. His method of news distribution was Twitter. Standing at the scene of the dramatic shootout between police and the two terrorist brothers in the wee hours, Mnookin proceeded to keep Twitter followers well informed by offering his eyewitness account of the events.

Mnookin was concise, authoritative, factual and dispassionate. He did all of the things that the we call on the YV networks to do.

Mostly, though, these channels invariably just preach to the choir, so their spiels probably count more as prime time entertainment than an opportunity to present some original content possessing genuine real news value.

Problem is, in the case of the endless Boston coverage, the anchors, reporters, talking heads and invited guests simply ran out of substantial things to say. They showed dramatic footage of the scenes of senseless violence and tragedy. It was riveting to watch the spot where only a few hours before everything had been calm and “ordinary.” Marathon runners ached to cross the finish line and well wishers greeted them with photographs, embraces and hearty congratulations for a job well done.

Then, when all hell broke loose, the TV networks, of course, were caught just as much off guard as the rest of us. As with the Atlanta and Munich Olympic Games, a typical sporting event had been transformed into a hot spot, more befitting of an event in Iraq or Afghanistan than a sports gig.

At first, the cable networks rose to the occasion and provided highly professional news coverage. They recited the facts, as they knew them, dispassionately and provided analysis, for instance, into what the annual marathon meant to Boston on Patriots Day. They shed light into the underbelly of the story of murder in plain sight.

Before long, however, light gave way to heat. The cable networks proceeded to start giving us the same reports, OVER AND OVER, and offered no new details. At those points, they should’ve backed away from the story and resumed the coverage when they, uh, had something insightful to say. But they didn’t.

And eventually, they totally ran out of stuff to say and did the inevitable: They had to fill the dead air time with wild speculation, which they passed off as “news.” It’s unnecessary to pick on one or another news agency, print or broadcast. Before long and from now on, the public regarded the factual errors as the work of “the media,” anyway, not taking the time to identify the perpetrators by their company names.

The real culprit here is the 24/7 news structure. It no longer does what it set out to accomplish: enlighten the viewers. Networks could attain higher TV ratings by offering opinions, which got wilder and wilder and increasingly irresponsible. It’s time for us to re-assess the value of the 24/7 system. It needs tweaking, at the very least.

It would be nice and beneficial for the TV networks to try to return to their original, high-minded objective or enlightening us.

Start doing it, please, before the next Boston-type story, where the whole world is watching and you’ll have an opportunity to prove your professionalism once again.

It’s not too late.

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