Broken news: Media off target, again
by Joseph Hughes, Tue Sep 05, 2006 at 01:24:53 PM EDT
While America reacted Monday to the tragic death of Steve Irwin, television's "Crocodile Hunter", another sad occurrence may have slipped through the cracks. With the announcement Sunday that four U.S. service members had died in Iraq, the American death toll for that war and the so-called war on terror reached 2,974, just shy of 3,000. What you might have missed, however, is the fact that more Americans have now died in Iraq and elsewhere than the total - including Americans and foreign nationals - who died on September 11. Yesterday afternoon, just before a commercial break, CNN's John King asked, "Also ahead: The Crocodile Hunter could be killed by a - if - if - if the Crocodile Hunter could be killed by a stingray, are you at risk?" I'm guessing the families of those four brave American soldiers would find that threat trivial.
Irwin's death, I'm sure, won't have the staying power of another recent media infatuation, that of a possible break in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case. Take, for instance, Thursday, August 17, when NBC, CBS and ABC each led their nightly news broadcasts with wall-to-wall coverage of the decade-old case, especially alleged Ramsey killer John Mark Karr. Total time devoted to the story was 7:39, 3:23 and 4:03, respectively. This, of course, is to say nothing of the countless hours of cable news time devoted to the typical cable news fare, missing and/or dead white women (or girls). But a funny thing happened on the way to Aruba.* That same Thursday, news broke that a federal judge had declared the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping unconstitutional, saying, "Plaintiffs have prevailed, and the public interest is clear, in this matter. It is the upholding of our Constitution." How much coverage did this stunning, administration-rebuking revelation draw from NBC, CBS and ABC? Well, :27, :25 and 2:00, respectively.
I thought a year ago, obviously prematurely, that the media had awoken from its slumber, a deep sleep that began when President Bush took office. A sleep that began when the Beltway-anchored political press corps decided that access trumped accountability. And a sleep that was no doubt encouraged by the administration-friendly corporations that own so much of what we see, read and hear. Shaken last year by the enormity of Katrina, traditionally mild-mannered anchors and correspondents gave audiences a true glimpse at the raw nerves left exposed after the storm. Remember Anderson Cooper dressing down Sen. Mary Landrieu and her colleagues for patting themselves on the back as federal delays mounted? Remember Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn speaking out, questioning the Pentagon's motives and challenging Michael Brown? Remember Fox News stalwarts Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera, both on-the-ground along the Gulf Coast, challenging studio hosts to recognize the tragedy as it unfolded? In other words, remember when Keith Olbermann wasn't seemingly the only one doing his job? What a difference a year makes.
No one's denying that the Ramsey case's latest developments were, in some way or another, worthy of coverage. Or that Irwin's untimely, yet sadly predictable, death is something of note. That said, you'd have to be Nancy Grace, Rita Cosby or Joe Scarborough to put forth the idea that either story should predominate the news, which both have. The truly terrible news - for all of us - is that there appears to be far more Graces, Cosbys and Scarboroughs acting as gatekeeper than there are Olbermanns. And unlike Olbermann, whose ability to focus, to stay on target, is without peer, the third-rate talents dominating the media have the attention span of an out-of-control child. And each hasty transition from story of significance to story of insignificance comes at our nation's peril. When the end of democracy comes, it'll come to us live, on location, with team coverage, from Aruba.
* So to speak.