More Americans tell pollsters that they receive their news primarily from television than from newspapers. Since the hijacking of the TWA plane on June 14, viewers have been receiving very little news about anything else. This raises the question of what standards network television news shows should apply to their coverage of a dramatic event. During the first 10 days, the practice was to cover the story, notwithstanding the absence of any new developments, for the bulk of the 30 minutes evening news.
Such heavy focus, of course replaces other “news” that by definition ceases to be news. Nothing is reported on what otherwise would have been news, whether about business, labor, tragedies, scientific breakthroughs, activities in legislative arenas, courts or the regular coverage of taxes, deficits, the arms race, public health and safety matters, or noteworthy happenings in such places as Texas, California, Nigeria, Mexico or the Soviet Union.
What is not reported is not exposed to normal democratic evaluation and feedback. For example, in a portentous decision, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives narrowly went along with Ronald Reagan and the Senate to break a 16-year moratorium — first imposed by Richard Nixon — on research and development of chemical warfare materials. With all cameras on the hijack story, the public received no information on this controversy in the days before the vote.
Morning network television was not much better. There were bits of other news, interspersed between entertainment pieces, on the “Today” and “Good Morning America” shows. But the “CBS Morning News” devoted its entire two hours day after day to the hostage situation. What is more, all three networks devoted extra hours of coverage later in the evening and many short spots throughout the day and night. These are the same networks and affiliates who have been unwilling to extend the regular evening news to one hour, as Walter Cronkite wished for years ago.
If television news wants to saturate its reporting of a jolting event at the severe exclusion of what is going on in the rest of the country and world, they should add another 30 minutes to meet their other news obligations until their “big story” subsides.
For, once the competing networks adopt a fixation on a story, it is full throttle against any news judgment or proportionality in a race of one network against another. Million-dollar anchormen become more trivial in their pursuits and more repetitious as they dash madly for audience share.
The basic issue is news diversity. After all, conventional network television is overwhelmingly entertainment, with news and features given the smallest of time niches each day. To make one event all-encompassing robs the viewers of what little news they have been receiving in the first place. During World War II, when major battles were raging, network radio transmitted other news.
Because so much time has been given to the hijack story, which quickly became a wait-and-see situation, television resorted to numbing duplication of interviews form morning to night, repetition of pictures and theme ad infinitum, empty speculation and the tell-tale sign of filler material, anchormen interviewing their own reporters. With so much time to fill, the frenetic networks — CBS more disappointing than ABC or NBC — still managed to give viewers little history and few calm assessments as did the British media even during the period when Germany was bombing London.
Allowing the media’s understandable interest in contradictions, their common portrayal of Reagan’s tough talk in the 1980 and his present restraint in the post-hijack days became tedious. It was if these broadcasters had to repeatedly goad the president in order to increase the chances that forceful action emanate from the White House as grist for their thirsting cameras. NO ideology loomed behind such goads: just business corporations actively seeking more climaxes to nourish their ongoing monomania.
The obsession extended to their televising segments of opinion about whether the networks were overplaying or overexposing the story, not so much to revise their news priorities, but to keep their selected addiction on center stage. Astonishingly, on Sunday, June 23, CBS’ evening news waited until 15 minutes into the program to report the details of the Air India 747 plane disaster that took 329 lives over the North Atlantic.
During the past two years, the networks have been increasingly exploiting certain stories into day after day time-eaters, crowding out many important news developments. Such PacMan television makes newspapers increasingly important for thoughtful Americans not to neglect.