One of today’s great ironies is that the 24-hour news channels are usually at their worst when real news is breaking.
At best, the term “cable news” is a misnomer. Actual news coverage rarely exceeds 10% of a channel’s day. The rest of the time is devoted to opinions and arguments over current events. It takes a weak mind and strong stomach to view CNN or MSNBC for any length of time. Fox, of course, also has its limits.
But the inherent weakness of cable news was brought home — yet again — with Saturday’s coverage of the London terrorist attacks that left seven civilians dead and 48 wounded. The anchors knew something serious had happened, but they had no clue of its extent, let alone the motives behind the mayhem.
As a result, for hour after hour, TV screens were filled with stupefyingly boring video of parking emergency vehicles with lights flashing and of crowds milling aimlessly on the streets.
Meanwhile, the anchors, their voices dripping with concern, kept spewing the same meager set of facts over and over. Guest commentators, either on screen or on the phone, provided some backup, but they didn’t have any information to impart, either.
In short, the news crews were in an impossible situation. It’s like taking members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, throwing them onto the Second City stage and demanding they perform first-rate improv.
One way cable channels can avoid such embarrassments is by showing some discretion. Someone should have the guts to make the call when apparent terrorist attacks don’t deserve wall-to-wall coverage.
For openers, Saturday’s attacks didn’t happen in Boston, Detroit or Houston. There’s an ocean between America and London, so an atrocity there is no sign of terror activity here. Also to be considered — at the risk of sounding callous — is the small number of casualties. Seven dead and 48 injured are a serious matter, but bus accidents in the U.S. that have had bigger tolls barely get mentioned on the national news.
For instance, the July 16, 2016, truck attack in Nice, France, was worthy of every moment of attention. Not only was the toll staggeringly high with 86 dead and 434 wounded, but it also was the debut of a new terrorist tactic. The truck smashing into crowds has been copied many times since.
It’s understandable why the channels stuck with their no-news coverage of London. Their audiences are not constant, so new viewers were always turning in to learn about ongoing developments.
But there should have been some breaks for real news while the crews waited for authorities to provide important information about the attacks.
Until that information was forthcoming, the channels would have served their audiences just as well if they had offered a screen saver with a news crawler at the bottom giving all the known facts. It would have saved everyone a lot of grief.