Editorial by John Ziegler

"Breaking News" Ain't What It Used to Be.

9/3/2001

There was a time not too long ago that when a national television network interrupted regularly scheduled programming with a "Breaking News" slate, dramatic music, and a breathless anchorperson, you could feel yourself get at least just a little bit nervous. Visions and fears of war, assignation, major plane crashes, and natural disasters quickly raced through your mind as you waited to find out what had gone so terribly wrong. However, after what I witnessed this past Thursday night, my pulse rate will never again be remotely impacted by the mere act of a network deciding for me that something important enough to reach this level of "big news" has allegedly occurred.

That night, just before 7pm, MSNBC (a network on which I have appeared several times as a commentator/pundit) sent high-testosterone anchorman Lester Holt to break into a taped show to bring us "virtually live" coverage of the "emergency" landing of a 737 that was being forced to land in Phoenix on its way to Mexico. Holt admirably "filled" for several minutes as viewers watched one-camera coverage provided by the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, and waited for something "news worthy," or at least interesting, to happen. He explained that the plane had apparently blown a tire on one of its front landing wheels, and that fire and rescue crews were on hand to deal with the worst-case scenario.

However, as viewers learned more while watching several other "non-emergency" landings, it became very apparent that whatever was about to happen wasn't likely to be all that noteworthy. An interview with an official from the local fire department embarrassingly revealed to Holt that the Phoenix airport deals with "emergency" landings of this type about once every five days and that in the vast majority of cases, nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. Undaunted and perhaps not wanting to admit to the full absurdity of the moment, MSNBC stuck with their "live" coverage, but with a bizarre and contradictory twist. Holt continually informed viewers (in what seemed like an attempt to make it appear that MSNBC was not actually ROOTING for the plane to crash) that the pictures we were seeing were delayed by several seconds so that should anything happen that was unsuitable to be seen (in other words, should "news" break out), that the coverage would be quickly cut.

Such a strange policy begs several questions: why are they bothering to show us this in the first if they plan to NOT show us anything that would actually classify this non-event as a news story? Isn't this why most potential "news stories" get taped and THEN shown to the public? Isn't the REAL reason somebody (who apparently didn't attend Journalism 101) has deemed this to be "breaking news" because something tragic MIGHT happen? Obviously the answers here are largely rhetorical and based on the spectacularly watered down definition of what constitutes "news" in 21st century America.

It turned out that, to no one's surprise, the "damaged" plane landed safely and was even able to taxi to the gate without incident. But during a lull in the "action" in Phoenix, MSNBC had found another "reality TV" type "story" in San Antonio where a man was "trapped" in his mini-van after trying unsuccessfully to drive over a bridge that had been flooded by a rain soaked creek. So MSNBC transferred its hopes for "evening drama" to the attempt to save the driver, which basically had all of the excitement of watching a grown man being helped out of the wave pool at an amusement park. After the assuredly mortified driver with rather poor judgment was finally carried to dry land, it was learned that two rescue workers were still in the overflowing stream and seemingly in far greater "danger" than the guy who was about to be in the market for a new car. However, by that time, the frustrated producers at MSNBC apparently had decided that even they had seen enough of this desperate search for human injury and suddenly pulled the plug, awkwardly returning to another stirring edition of "Headlines and Legends" already in progress.

All of this further bastardization of the integrity of the 24-hour "news" channels is almost humorous and it made me think of what incidents might soon be considered worthy of "breaking" national news. It no longer takes much imagination to hear Brian Williams describing the frantic efforts to save a cat stuck in a tree in Chicago, Judy Woodruff narrating an elderly lady's attempt to cross over Times Square in New York, or Ashley Banfield chronicling the plight of boaters who forgot their sunscreen on a sunny day off the coast of San Diego (these happenings can only be "news" when they occur in places where the network affiliates can get satellite trucks before there is a happy resolution to the problem). It seems only a matter of time before these seemingly sick news nightmares become 24-hour news channel reality. Frankly, I can't wait. They say that it is almost impossible to pass a car accident without looking at what happened. I am finding it hard not to watch the catastrophe that DOESN'T materialize. Who can blame me when the always-thin line between comedy and tragedy has never been finer?

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