Wednesday, April 8, 2009

This Just In...

I thumbed through a magazine in the doctor's waiting room when an urgent voice came on the television. "We have breaking news," said the anchorwoman. "The FDA is advising consumers to avoid pistachios until the source of the salmonella outbreak can be traced."

Pistachios? Is that it? You call that "breaking news?" For a moment there, I thought we were under attack. Or someone was holding hostages. Or the president had fired another car company executive and ordered somebody to resurrect American Motors and the Gremlin - just for fun. Hell, somebody would buy one. But, no, this "breaking news" turned out to be about nuts.

Now don't get me wrong. I like pistachios. In fact, I almost bought some right before that recall was issued. They're tasty and they make my pee turn green, and anything that makes my pee turn green is way cool. But I wouldn't call this a "breaking news" story. The story had already been broke (Is that good English?) several days before when the salmonella outbreak had been discovered. That's when a story breaks. Additional information from the FDA is not "breaking news," but rather, it's additional knowledge about to be added to my information overload.

But proclaiming it "Breaking News" got my attention, and that's just what CNN, Fox, et al, want. As you scan the cable with your remote, you're not going to stop on a channel running a banner along the bottom of the screen saying, "Everything is fine, right now. Just fine. Nothing wrong. Nothing to see here. Just turn your TV off and go to bed." Your thumb lifts off the button only if you see "Breaking News," or "Developing Story," or anything with the words "Alert," "Crisis," or "Brittany" on the banner. The Royal Flush for news directors at these channels is the Continuing Coverage of the Breaking Brittany Crisis. I'm not joking.

The TV in the waiting room was tuned to CNN. I haven't been watching CNN much since the days when I worked in news/talk radio, and I kind of miss it. But after a bout of non-stop Crisis Coverage Television, I remembered why I didn't miss it all that much. In the 45 minutes or so I watched, CNN gave me 2 Breaking Stories, 3 Developing Stories, a Crisis in the Mid-East, (that doesn't even qualify as a Continuing Story so much as a Status Quo.) 5 updates, and at least one News Alert regarding Michelle Obama touching the Queen of England. My wife left the doctor feeling great. I needed a sedative.

It must be an exhausting life working at a news network these days, constantly working in a state of Code Red. Back in the pre 9-11 days, a producer could kick back and drink in those periods in a news day when, especially at the local level, nothing happened. A reporter could dig deeper into a story on political corruption. A videographer could grab some B-roll that could lend more context to a package report. Facts were checked. Mistakes could be caught and corrected. Voice overs could be rehearsed. Awkward sentences could be rewritten. Spelling errors in the graphics could be ousted. Trust me, the down time was well spent. These days, a producer is charged with the responsibility of making every event in life a crisis in order to grab restless attention spans. I don't think I could work like that. I know I can't watch it.

I've never really thought about it before, but the current state of TV journalism could explain why it can so difficult to hold a conversation with certain family members and coworkers. For example: within my lifetime, the price of gasoline at the pump has risen and fallen more times than I can count. Believe me, the oil embargo of 1973 lives in my memory, when gas prices jumped 60-70%, shortages caused lineups at the gas stations, everybody was driving 4-ton Detroit behemoths that got 8 miles to the gallon, and rationing was mentioned for the first time since WWII. We were not happy campers. While last summer's surge in gas prices was not pleasant to say the least, compared to '73, it was hardly a Crisis. And yet, every time gas prices take even the slightest rise, it's a Crisis. Which leads to me getting e-mails from coworkers or family telling me about a day when I'm not supposed to buy gas to protest the prices. Yeah, that'll change everything, just like it hasn't for the past 35 years.

Most disturbing of all is the coverage on our economy. Yes, a 7,000 point drop in the Dow is certainly newsworthy, and in-depth coverage is justifiable. But I can't help but wonder how many "Internet Investors" switched on a cable news channel, saw "Alert: America's Financial Meltdown" or "Breaking News: Economy Flat Lines" on the screen, and immediately dove for their laptops to sell off their stocks. Who is the worst culprit: the overreaction in the media, or the person who overreacts to the overreaction in the media?

I can't help but think this current culture of overreaction has spilled over into other aspects of life. Road rage. Mass shootings. The bitch-o-grams I get in the company e-mail when somebody leaves something smelly in the break room refrigerator. Whenever an injustice has been committed, we expect on-the-spot Breaking News coverage of our victimization, whether it be Chris Hansen from Dateline confronting the wrongdoer on hidden camera, or Dr. Phil or Oprah giving us a new car to salve our heartbreak. The copier is jammed! Code Red! Initiate full document recovery procedures!

Yeesh. I think I'll just go buy some pistachios.

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