The 24/7 news cycle ramped up through social media is one of the BEST things to happen to society in recent decades. Don’t believe that? Then you’re not paying attention.
Twitter, Facebook or (fill in platform of choice) enables information to be dispensed to massive numbers of people in mere moments. Television stations like MSNBC (my addiction), CNN (no one’s real addiction) and Fox News (unfortunately, too many people’s addiction) are forced to cover and convey information on stories way beyond the mere half hour networks used to devote to their nightly news broadcasts. People in general are engaged and MORE informed (no, the more is not a typo) on world issues than they ever have been at any time in history, partly because they can’t help but not be.
PLUS – two terrorists were brought down within days after blowing up hundreds of people at the annual Boston Marathon (3 dead, scores of others with severed limbs) in part due to the massive dissemination of information through these means.
That would be information on a story you wanted to know about but, after a bit, also wanted to turn away from. Except nowadays you don’t have a choice. You can’t. Every time you turn around someone is telling you something you don’t necessarily want to know. But probably should.
We can never be sure how much television news and social media contributed to that key person in Watertown, MA being so acutely aware so continuously of this massive manhunt that they couldn’t help but notice that there was blood on the tarp of the boat behind their house – a boat where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19 year old bombing suspect was hiding after managing to escape from the police showdown where his 26 year old accused fellow terrorist brother Tamerlan was killed (some say by the car Dzhokhar was speeding away with).
But what we do know is this:
In the world of police work and reportage one clue leads to another, information begets information, and it is the piecing together of all the facts by dogged reporters and investigators that in turn leads to the solution of a case and the satisfactory completion of a story.
There is no telling what the alternative ending would be if you removed any of the steps along the way that led the person to go behind the house, and check out the boat, and notice the blood, and look further in to see the guy moving in the boat, and walk back out without going further to call the police at the number that was posted everywhere you looked, to tell them about the things that they saw before the guy had enough time to regroup and flee. If there were a way to predict such things, Back to The Future, a film that cautions against playing with the sequence of events that have already occurred, would not still be a perennial piece of movie wonderment that held any meaning at all among my young twenty something students (and, I can assure you, it still is).
Why is it then that much of what I heard in my informal survey during the last week were endless complaints of the sensationalizing of a situation on TV that couldn’t get any more sensational, of the news gone amuck, and of a society that was being encouraged to fixate on this latest unfortunate event of world terrorism the United States was currently enduring instead of fixating on…. well, what I’m not sure.
Of course, I have NO IDEA why people incessantly posted on sites that the 24/7 news cycle is trying and taxing and sensationalistic. This IS life. This IS what the world is about now. This IS the connection technology has wrought – for both good and bad.
Perhaps I’m wondering aloud now but here’s a question to ask ourselves — what should television instead be showing? More episodes of Ready for Love (cancelled after just two) or The Bachelor (which, like Celine’s heart, will go on and on and on) — is that what we’re missing? What SHOULD be broadcast instead of 24/7 news? How many more game shows? Soap operas? Local news about the weather or perhaps chance of bad weather? Or maybe a 24/7 obsessional show about bad weather (Intervention: Doppler Edition?). Maybe more reruns of I Love Lucy or Cheers or The Cosby Show? Or Friends? Maybe more Dr. Phil? How about an extra episode of Smash? (Yes, it’s still on). I mean, I do love Mad Men, but the current number of episodes on the air (all 10,000 of them, including reruns) is just right, thank you very much.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not even close to saying that the cable news stations or their network counterparts are getting it right all of the time or are necessarily in it to make the world a better place. You couldn’t possibly think that when you see something like this on CNN right after the terrorist face off:
No, our New Girl had nothing to do with this. The best anyone can figure is that the computer auto correct of Dzhokhar is Zooey. Also, Zooey has forgiven them. And if you want to know how I know it’s because Joel McHale from Community and The Soup tweeted it to Ms. D via Twitter and she tweeted back and those tweets were both run on a website I frequent and all of it was then reposted on Facebook by my most intimate of Facebook friends, who never lies to me about such stuff. So there!!
But if the Zooey mishap and too many human interest stories related to major crime scenes that seem neither particularly human or even very interesting is the price to pay for being that much more aware of the world around us, I say we should keep ponying up. See – the networks have realized even before us that breaking news is not only much cheaper to produce than fictionalized drama but that it is inherently more….dramatic. Even better, technology has enabled them to present it in a way that is not dissimilar to a fast-moving hour procedural drama, albeit over an eight-hour period of time.
Here’s what I got watching television all day Friday:
A major American city on lockdown. A fugitive at large who might have a bomb (or two or three) in one of the most densely populated areas in the US. Not enough clues to figure out what happened and a metropolitan dragnet and cast of characters better than any of the ones in any of the 23,432 Batman movies. Jigsaw puzzle pieces of info on the shooters, the victims and the families of each and endless speculation of too many talking heads about all of it (really a show all on its own).
Then suddenly at the all is lost point at the end of act two, (screenwriters will best understand this), right on cue we get new gunshots fired in Watertown, MA. They think they have the shooter surrounded. Wait! Weren’t we just told live by the police chief that it was more than possible the suspect had fled the area and that you couldn’t keep the entire city locked indoors any longer? Well, maybe that was a ruse to smoke the guy out? Or perhaps it wasn’t and time was just running out? Oh, who cares. This is real life. Not TV drama. (Or is it?) Wait, now there’s spontaneous cheering from a crowd on the streets. Then a firefight around a boat behind a house. Followed by a lot of silence. Followed by reports of a suspect bleeding. Or not. Then reports of a fire, which could be from the shots. Then background on a woman who reported blood on the boat in the back of her driveway which, thanks to Google maps, we can see a visual of as we get reports that the bleeding suspect has been apprehended and now is in police custody. To which we then hear thunderous rounds of applause from hundreds and then thousands of people gathering around on the streets of Boston to thank law enforcement. A spontaneous show of affection that many on the air are saying is a first. Or at least the first in a while. Cue end of scene and end of story. At least for now.
Since this took place over the approximately 8 hours I was watching television, I suppose I could be making this seem more exciting than it was in real 24/7 news time. But if you want to live in the real world and see how real life happens this is it. The reporting of stories is not what it is in the movies or on series television. Neither is police work. It happens in actual time and it doesn’t have three or five or seven act structure that will induce you to stay tuned in through the commercials or network IDs.
My time in journalism school and my early years as a reporter taught me that working on a story can be almost as slow and tedious as the “hurry up and wait” feeling you get being on a movie set that I experienced as a screenwriter – only 12 times as frustrating. This is because eventually the scene you are waiting for on a movie set will be filmed. Yet there is no guarantee or even likelihood a story will ever get written or aired if it doesn’t pan out. And most times they don’t. Except when they’re newsworthy. That means that eventually….some do. One way or the other. And living in 2013 we are all lucky enough to be there watching it live. If we so choose.
There are lousy journalists and great journalists. That’s what we’re getting. And we’re really, really fortunate to get it. If we don’t like what we’re getting – we can TURN. IT. OFF. But we have to stop complaining. That includes you and me too – because given another particular issue – I’m no better than anyone else.
As a public, we’re already amped up. The news doesn’t make it worse. Information is power. The lack of it is when we get in trouble and the bad guys win. Or worse – take over when our backs are turned and we’re not paying attention.