May 17, 2006

Man Bites Gator

Have you noticed what passes for news on the cable networks nowadays?
The latest big news story is that a few alligators have attacked humans in Florida. Do you know how many fatal alligator attacks there have been in the U.S. in the decades since records have been kept? 18. That's how many people die every 4 hours or less on the nation's highways, or every 5 hours in the U.S. from gun violence. A few summers ago, the big news story was shark attacks. The coverage was so heavy that one would have thought thousands of sharks were on a human-eating rampage. In fact, the frequency of shark attacks that summer was below average.

In between animal attacks, the cable networks treat us to stories of missing young white women. Natalee Holloway. The Runaway Bride. Chandra Levy. And sometimes there are missing white guys, but nobody remembers their names. There's a honeymooner who went missing from a cruise ship. And some other guy, a college student, currently missing from another cruise ship. Apparently the women get abducted while walking or jogging, but the men disappear off of ships.

We also have the Duke Lacrosse scandal, where a woman alleges that she was attacked by members of the Duke lacrosse team at a party. Certainly, that's a story on the Duke campus, and the surrounding community, where the prosecutor involved is running for re-election. But why is it a major story on national cable networks?

Then of course, there are the celebrity stories. TomKat. Jennifer & Brad. Bennifer. Britney and her baby in the car. Michael Jackson and the Neverland Ranch.

This trend is not new. It precisely follows the growth of the 24-hour cable "news" networks. In fact, one of the first local "man bites dog" stories cablecast around the nation was that of Baby Jessica. Those old enough and with good memories may recall that, in October 1987, 18 month old Jessica McClure fell down a well in Texas. During the 58-hour vigil until she was rescued, a number of reporters descended on the scene. CNN, which, until the first Gulf War several years later, was still a fledgling network, capitalized on the situation, and its own 24-hour capability, by providing wall-to-wall coverage. According to some reports, Baby Jessica became the second most-watched television "news" coverage of all time, behind that other important news event, the death of Princess Diana. No doubt O.J. Simpson's Ford Bronco escapade is up there in the top 5. With its coverage of Baby Jessica, CNN's ratings surpassed that of the broadcast networks for the first time. This paved the way for the multitude of 24-hour cable "news" networks that have launched since that time.

Someone needs to explain why this programming is "news." I consider it pure entertainment. The simple answer may be that the cable networks have 24 hours to fill, and there isn't that much real news going on all the time. This is especially true in the summer, when Congress and the President are taking the longest of their many long vacations, and thus there are little or no legislative and policy matters being generated. Of course, there are issues that could and should be covered, but rarely are. For example, prior to the violent, made-for-tv destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, when is the last time we saw substantial cable news network coverage of poverty anywhere in America? Moreover, if one views the BBC or other international news networks, there are numerous other news stories going on around the world, in places such as Africa, Asia and even Europe. The issues range from military conflicts and famines to planetary issues such as overpopulation and global warming. However, the U.S. cable news networks seem to minimize coverage or even ignore them. Some U.S. cable network executives say that Americans don't care about many of these issues, and cannot even point to many of the involved places on a map. But of course, that's a chicken-and-egg question. If the networks did the hard work of providing important news topics in an educational and entertaining way, instead of taking the easy path of airing alligator attacks and car chases, then maybe we would be interested in these news stories, and hungry for more.

But I can't help wondering whether there is something else a bit more calculated at work here. Are the shark and gator attack stories designed to elicit any different response than the movie "Jaws"? Are the missing women stories intended to cause us to react any differently than, say, the movie "The Vanishing" (guy's wife goes missing at truck stop), "Mad Max" (guy's wife and daughter terrorized by gang of outlaws) or any other movies of the women-in-peril genre, which goes all the way back to D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" and the later "Perils of Pauline" serials? Is coverage of car chases on cable "news" channels designed to provide more to the audience than the excitement of an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie?

Psychological experts say that, when we're in a heightened emotional state, we form a strong neurological association to any stimulus occurring at the same time. Like, for instance, a tv commercial.

For producers and advertisers, therefore, these stories might make for good tv, in the sense that they appeal to our emotions and may cause us to buy products that appear on the commercials between the programming. They might be tremendously entertaining and enjoyable to watch, after a brain-mumbing day at work. But shouldn't this programming be labeled "entertainment" and aired on the networks' entertainment channels? If the national cable news networks cannot fill 24 hours a day with real news pertinent to their nationwide audience, perhaps they should pare down their hours of operation, or call themselves news-and-entertainment networks, split their schedules, and label and treat their programming accordingly.


At 3:09 PM, Blogger Ghetufool said...

don't understand why the western media blows everything up to a huge proportion. sadly the tren is catching up fast hre in india. nice post pal. and your 'super chicken' post was very nice. how common americans are taking up the sensitive immigration issue BTW, when almost all of them were bullying immigrants themselves?

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Thanks ghetufool. I checked out your blog and it is very well written. As many of my blog posts indicate, here in the USA everything is in huge proportion --media stories, cars, people, food, movies, gambling cities, the military and the government itself. I'm sorry to hear that this is spilling over into India. Some products should not be exported. As for immigration, I wrote in the post that it is being hyped by the Republican party due to election-year politics. Since then, Republican leaders in Congress have stated that there will be no immigration legislation this year. After all the hype, it was just hot air and political posturing all along.


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