July 23, 2013

All the news that's fit to cover

At one of the television discussion boards I frequent, there was a thread last week asking whether or not TV overdid it with the George Zimmerman trial. (Note: this has nothing to do with the merits of the trial itself, or the outcome.) The pretty-much unanimous consensus has been that it did.

At Classic Sports and TV Media, Jeff reminds us that the third round of the 1999* Open Championship was moved from ABC to ESPN due to the former's continuous coverage of the search for the missing John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane.

*Fourteen years ago - can it possibly be that long?

Michael Jackson dies. Whitney Houston dies. Casey Anthony. Jodi Arias. O.J. Simpson. William Kennedy Smith (and the blue dot). Many of us, confronted with nonstop television coverage of these stories, have probably asked the question: is all this really necessary?

Today, of course, the proliferation of 24-hour news channels and 24/7 online access means that every story has the potential of being inflated far beyond its actual importance, as news events become increasingly seen as ratings events rather than legitimate informational coverage. And yet we shouldn't be surprised by it all - from the McCarthy hearings to the Cuban Missile Crisis to the JFK assassination to Watergate, there were people who complained that the continuous coverage wasn't really necessary. Why does every station have to show it, they'd ask.  Especially when nothing's new, nothing's going on.  On occasion networks did rotate coverage, but more often than not all three devoted similar time to saturation coverage.

I was reminded of this recently while reviewing some as-it-happened network news footage of Robert F. Kennedy's funeral. As I'd mentioned before, RFK's death didn't garner the same nonstop coverage of JFK's, yet for Saturday's funeral and burial, the networks turned over total coverage to the drama in New York and Washington. There were some powerful images broadcast that weekend, as captured in this end-of-the-day clip from ABC news, along with the truly stunning news of the capture of Martin Luther King's assassin, James Earl Ray.

And yet, reviewing a mere two hours from one disc, I was struck by how little there was actually happening. Picking up the "action" following the end of the funeral Mass, we see a line of cars moving from St. Patrick's Cathedral to Penn Station for the train trip to Washington. Actually, we see a lot of milling about, as the procession to the station was 45 minutes late. When the cameras shift to the station, we see a lot of dignitaries riding the escalator down to the train. There are more shots of the train. More shots of the people on the escalators. Some shots of them getting on the train. Walter Cronkite identifying the people on the escalators. Cronkite and Hughes Rudd discussing whether or not the final car of the train has a platform on the end. (It did.)

After the train left the station, we had bad ariel shots of the train from an airplane. At least it was supposed to be the train - frequently, all one could see were trees.) Then images from some of the train stations along the train's route - many of these remote shots were in black-and-white. We saw lots of pictures of people looking down the tracks, waiting for the train to come. After it did, we saw some additional pictures of them looking the other way watching the train leave. There were films of the train's route that had evidently been taken earlier in the week, a kind of artist's conception of what was going on during those times when the train was out of camera range. And when the train finally arrived in Washington, over four hours behind schedule, there was more of the same. In between, we got to see Walter Cronkite back in New York, talking in the studio with various guests.

Was all this coverage necessary? My guess is that it wasn't; that following the funeral the networks probably could have resumed their coverage with the arrival in Washington, interspersed with regular updates. Had that happened, though, what would have been aired instead? Were people really in the mood for sporting events, for movies, for comedies and dramas? While the coverage might have been boring, the alternative might equally have been unwanted. What's a network to do?

There was an alternative, of course. People could have simply turned off there televisions. They could have taken a walk and appreciated the miracle of life, they could have gone to church, they could have sat with their family or friends and talked. But for some reason, in situations like this, there's a compulsion to simply watch television. And I'm not pointing fingers here, because when this kind of thing happens (9/11, for example) I'm doing the same thing. It does say something about our culture, however, that in such situations the default setting is to watch television, even if there's nothing going on.

There is, of course, a difference between the death of a president and the death of a singer, between an investigation of the government and the investigation of an accused child killer, between an event that affects the entire world and one that directly impacts very few. But if even important events can become tedious, what about the ones that aren't as important?

Or at least I'd like to think there's a difference between those events. Having established its own importance, television has, over the years, become the arbiter of the newsworthiness of various events. We've been conditioned to understand that if it's on TV, it's important; if not, too bad. In doing so, television helps to shape the national agenda - to determine, as the quaint old phrase used to read, the major issues of the day. It may not have been necessary, it may have been driving a questionable agenda, it may have been overkill to the tenth power. But we watched.

So apparently George Zimmerman's trial was important after all, as were all the other events I discussed above. I didn't know it, but they were. After all, we're the ones who've invested television with the power to decide such things - and if TV says it's so, who are we to disagree?

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