For two hours yesterday afternoon, CNN, Fox and MSNBC focused exclusively on one story. I know, I watched it.
I came home to fix myself some lunch and thought I would check on Hurricane Wilma and I got caught up in the story which was unfolding on all three of these 24-hour news channels.
Here's what happened. Two men apparently approached Capitol Police and said some suspicious sounding things about something in their car. It was a Florida rental that was parked near Capitol Hill. The bomb squad went into immediate action and there was a lockdown of the entire area. For the next two hours or so, all three of these news networks concentrated their entire coverage to this unfolding story. It was spellbinding, for them at least.
I admit I fantasized about bombs. I even fantasized about a nuclear suitcase bomb in the trunk, boobytrapped so that when the bomb squad went to check the car, it would go off and the screen would go blank.
All the talking heads were chattering non-stop with "experts" they must have on such immediate call that they were all available on a moment's notice. Cameras zoomed in and out, focusing on the car, but excited every time a bomb squad member would appear on screen. A pretty blond Capitol Police spokeswoman would appear occasionally and provide updates about the process and procedure that was being followed.
It was decided that the police would use a disrupting technique that would employ some kind of pressurized water cannon to "interfere" with the suspicious package and its contents.
Like some mind-numbed automaton, I followed this while I ate, not able to take my eyes off the screen for fear of missing something.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they set the thing off and nothing happened. It blew the back door of the car open but there was no explosion. Apparently, there was nothing. I turned the TV off, unsatisfied, embarrassed of sorts, and went back to my office.
Curious, this morning, I checked the front pages of the news websites for MSNBC, Fox, and CNN to see what the result was of my two hours spent with them yesterday.
On Fox, it can be found by scrolling down on the front page, and is headlined "Bomb Scare in D.C." I finally found a short story on MSNBC after clicking on US News, then looking under U.S. Security. On CNN, same thing, click on US and then you'll find a short story.
But in contrast to yesterday's actual coverage, these stories don't even come close to conveying the excitement and tension of those two hours -- "BREAKING NEWS" screaming at me from every channel. Everything else was pushed aside yesterday, all resources were devoted to covering and explaining what was happening with that car --who knows how much money it cost them all.
Each network left me breathless, a cliffhanger before each advertising break (you don't think they skipped those, do you?). But then, unlike fictional cliffhangers, when you were returned to the BREAKING NEWS, nothing had happened. There was this constant ebb and flow of tension, unrelieved by anything actually happening. You could also see the competitiveness of each network, working hard to get the best camera angle, the best expert analysis, the best "inside" information from the bomb squad.
I wonder if, in hindsight, they are as embarrassed about their coverage as I am about having watched it. What other stories might they have broken away to cover while they continue to monitor the car?
I wonder how many Iraqi men, women and children were killed during those two hours; how many more Americans lost jobs during those two hours; how many more square miles of Brazilian rainforest were cut down; how many more American children went hungry; how many more AIDS victims died because they could not afford the drugs that could keep them alive: how many more American cigarettes were sold to the Chinese people; how many more CEO's got raises while their companies were tanking.
Just how much other, more important news could have been covered during that time?
I am not contending that the DC police should not have taken the steps they did. And I am not contending that the networks should not have covered it. What I am saying is that it was way over the top, that the networks could have been more sober about their coverage, they could have tempered it, and they could have covered other news while they continued to monitor this story.
But what happened is a sign of the time, it's a reflection of the race for ratings. It's coverage for the lowest common denominator -- advertising income. Essentially, it boils down to this: how can you take the excitement and tension of a TV show like 24 and bring that to TV News?
Yesterday's coverage of this bomb scare is the answer.