Not long ago, cable news cameras turned their focus skyward to an almost celestial body hurling itself across the sky. Broadcasters watched breathless as it landed. They were agog at the image, godlike in its apparent significance. Was it a bird? Was it a plane? No, it was a hoax.
And yet for days after, networks remained obsessed with this decidedly nonevent. It turned out that it had all been an elaborate hoax, a photo opportunity. President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, dressed up like Tom Cruise in “Top Gun,” and had journalist after journalist panting to his alleged manliness (and manhood). We kid you not. (Here’s an extremely excited G. Gordon Liddy to Chris Matthews, perhaps forgetting about the invention of the protective cup.)
Meanwhile, even the less aroused journalists who might have exposed that charade for what it was at the time offered themselves up as members of an unquestioningly admiring audience.
Oh wait, you thought we meant “Balloon Boy.” Okay, we’ll play your game. All of a sudden, even the people who make their living on cable news have apparently figured out that the story pretty much sucks. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham admits:
“What this does is, I think, it kind of puts egg on all of our faces. We all become part of the media problem. I’ll throw myself right into the mix. Because you really can’t take your eyes off it, but meanwhile you know there are all these really important things happening, not only in our country but around the world.”
For the cable news networks, “Balloon Boy” was a perfect story. It made for spellbinding viewing that was cheap to produce, and was more fun than they’ve had since O.J. Simpson’s infamous “Flight of the White Bronco.” The networks did not verify the validity of the story that a homemade hot air balloon was carrying a young boy through the clouds. Instead, they took the story they had been given and showed the riveting pictures of the balloon in flight. It was indicative of “the media problem.”
Balloon Boy coverage occupied 16 percent of all airtime from October 12 to 18 on the 24-hour networks. This made it nearly the biggest story on cable news for that time period, second only to health care. Afghanistan received less than half that percentage of coverage on those days. And, in spite of the importance of Pakistan to the battle against the Taliban, that country barely registered. The relatively brief spectacle of the balloon in the air made fodder for endless follow-up stories and opportunities for the talking heads to blather.
As another example, the week of Michael Jackson’s death in June, coverage of the King of Pop accounted for 36 percent of cable news airtime. One month later, it was still in the top 10 of stories covered.
In contrast, the coverage of Hurricane Katrina was a genuine success for cable news. The strength of the coverage was that the networks put reporters on the ground in the places where the stories were unfolding. For once, the focus for the producers and reporters became news gathering rather than commentary on news gathered elsewhere.
But this glimmer of brilliance proved an exception to the rules rather than a rewriting of them. Instead of ushering in a new era for hard news on TV, cable news outlets retreated into their comfort zones of roundtables and shouting matches.
The story at Fox News has been its soaring ratings and the remarkable ascendancy of the cartoonish Glenn Beck. MSNBC’s addition of “The Rachel Maddow Show” has offered more commentary. And CNN has become obsessed with checking Twitter and other social networks for the modern-day version of the man-on-the-street interview featuring people who may or may not exist but at least have funny names.
Since the summer, health care has become the focus for cable news, which would be laudable if the coverage weren’t so shallow. This summer, the constant airing of videos of angry people at town halls helped support the conservative narrative that there was little public support for health care reform. (Fox ran 22 health care reports in a row at one point this summer, all of them negative.)
Brian Stelter, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote this week on the increased media attention of the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. military still has 120,000 troops in Iraq, which means that although the Defense Department still has room in its budget for two wars, news organizations do not.
Howard Kurtz came to the defense of cable news for the Balloon Boy coverage. He claimed that the networks basically acted responsibly in covering the story and that they made the best possible editorial decision based on the information available to them. Kurtz quoted a Fox News executive who, with unusual accuracy, explained, “It’s what we do in 24-hour cable news.”
Now that we’ve got that straight, maybe we can stop taking it so seriously.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast and is mocked, on occasion, by Tom Tomorrow, but given a full beard http://www.salon.com/comics/tomo/2009/10/19/tomo/index.html
Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer and an English teacher at Kingsborough Community College.