Nature (and Television) Abhors a Vacuum
Is it just me, or has that 24-hour news cycle “model” launched by CNN turned around and bitten the hand that feeds it? Not only has the amount of faux-news and warmed-over commentary reached epic proportions, the term “talking heads” has never been made more explicit or nauseating.
The late, great Jack Germond, one of America’s most respected print journalists, liked to remind people—particularly television people—that newspapers used to publish noticeably shorter editions on those days when there wasn’t much news to report. After all, if it was a slow news day, what were they expected to do—insult the readership by endlessly repackaging the same story while they waited for something to happen?
Alas, while reducing content may have worked for newspapers, the ubiquitous news and discussion shows on cable TV don’t have that “luxury,” because despite there being nothing fresh and insightful to report—and all the old stuff having been chewed up and regurgitated several times—the networks have no choice but to plow ahead, keep on talking, keep on sifting through the wreckage, no matter how repetitive or mind-numbing. The simple truth is that these programs have been scheduled in advance and the sponsors have already paid for air time.
Recent events in Ukraine and Gaza are prime examples of this. Because the events occurring in these places are so riveting and tragic (innocent people dying, dwellings being demolished, lives being ruined), it makes absolute sense to want to continue covering them, even if, in truth, pretty much everything pertinent had already been reported days earlier.
As tragic as these stories are, the reality is that until something genuinely “news worthy” occurs, there is very little new information to report. It’s no one’s fault. There’s no blame to assign. There simply happens to be such a thing as a “lull.” In fact, ideally, these Gaza and Ukraine stories could be covered with a five-minute update from time to time, just to keep the viewers apprised of what’s going on.
But these news and commentary shows don’t come in five-minute doses; they come in half-hour or one-hour blocks, with somber-looking pundits sharing a split screen or pontificating at a panel table. And despite the paucity of content, there is no way in hell CNN or MSNBC or Fox News would ever consider “going dark,” and waiting for something worthwhile to report.
So not only are we exposed to the repetitive, mindless chatter of retired military officers and intelligence wonks pretending to know more than they know, there is no point in changing channels, because it’s only going to be more of the same. When there’s a lull, there’s a lull, and changing stations won’t remedy that. You can’t invent fresh news when there isn’t any.
All of which doesn’t erode these programs’ credibility or determination so much as reveal their superficiality. How refreshing it would be, on a slow news day, to have a five-minute update, followed by a re-run of the “West Wing.”
David Macaray is a playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor,” 2nd edition). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org