Sometimes what matters most takes up every inch of space in the room and somehow we still don’t see it. That’s how I feel about our present media moment.
Let me put it this way: I’m a creature of habit, and one of those habits has long been watching NBC Nightly News, previously with anchor Brian Williams and now with Lester Holt. It’s my way of getting some sense of what an aging cohort of American news viewers (like me) learns daily about the world—what stories are considered important and not, and in what order, and how presented.
Here’s one thing it’s hard not to notice: the line-up of stories that we used to call the “news” seems increasingly like a thing of the past. Remarkably often these days, the “news” is a single hyped-up story—most recently, the San Bernardino shootings—reported frenetically and yet formulaically, often in near-apocalyptic fashion. Clearly, such an approach is meant to glue eyeballs in a situation in which viewers are eternally restless and there are so many other screens available. This single story approach is both relentless and remarkably repetitious because a lot of the time next to nothing new is known about the supposedly unfolding event (which is nonetheless presented as if our lives depended upon it). To fall back on the anchor of Avon, it often enough seems like a tale told by a collective idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
What this form of news certainly does is suck all the air out of the newsroom. On some days, when one of these 24/7 events is running wild, you could be excused, at the end of half an hour of “national news,” for thinking that nothing other than the event at screen center had happened anywhere on Earth. And I mean nothing. Not even the weather, generally such a favored subject of the nightly news because it offers disaster in its most picturesquely chaotic and yet expectable form.
Above all, the 24/7, all-hands-on-deck news story obliterates context, or rather becomes the only context of the moment. To offer the most obvious recent example: in the days in which the San Bernardino shootings ate the screen, most Americans would not have noticed that the fate of the planet was being seriously discussed and negotiated in Paris by representatives of just about every country. There was next to nothing but those shootings available—the exploration of the backgrounds of the two killers, their marriage, their arsenal of weaponry, a pledge of allegiance by the wife to ISIS, the contents of their house, what relatives and friends in Pakistan had to say, their bank account, heart-rending tales of those killed, testimony from survivors, and on and on. Even more than a week after the event, it was still the lead story on NBC Nightly News evening after evening. (“San Bernardino Shooters Discussed Jihad in 2013 Before Engagement,” “FBI Divers Search Lake Near San Bernardino Massacre for Clues.”) Viewers might be pardoned for thinking that Islamic terrorism was indeed an apocalyptic threat for most Americans rather than the distinctly minor one it is.