Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Alex Cried, "Wolf!"

Time/Date: 10:00am, July 30, 2008

Channel: MSNBC

Full Screen Text: BREAKING NEWS

Anchor-person, Alex Witt: We’ve got some breaking news for you! 

Me: Oh, no. Not another school shooting; or flood; or bridge collapse; or terrorist attack, or…

Text at Bottom of Screen: BREAKING NEWS
Video: Aerial shot of plane at JFK Airport terminal.

Alex Witt:
Passengers’ bags are not making it onto flights at JFK airport!

Me:  Huh? Breaking news? I missed the conclusion of Sanford and Son for this? How will I ever know whether or not Fred really had the big one?  Has Commissioner Gordon been notified?

          MSNBC Morning Anchor, Alex Witt tripped into the story with a tone of urgency nearing Minneapolis bridge collapse level – not quite Columbine level, but greater than,
say, Columbus, Ohio I-270 outer-belt sniper level. Over the next 2 hours and 15 minutes (from 10:00 to 12:15), the neatly shuffled beauties of MSNBC morning news voiced the phrase “breaking news” to introduce a story no less than 14 times. Breaking News appeared in text at the bottom of the screen during the same span at least 16 times. Many of these lower-third graphics carried right through from one critical news item to the next – seamless television at its best. A full red screen, with the big bold floating text Breaking News sretching nearly edge to edge, swooshed on to the screen during the introduction to many of these stories. I didn’t track each one, but you can bet your new Samsonites there were at least a dozen.
          Other urgent news items that morning included a judge’s refusal to dismiss charges against Drew Peterson, an Illinois Police Chief suspected in the murder and disappearance of his third and fourth wives, respectively, and an armored car heist in West Palm Beach with rather innocuous live aerial video of the scene. MSNBC reported at the time that one person was killed in the shoot-out. The next day we learned that the guards were held up while servicing an ATM machine and no one was killed.  Mixed in with the steady stream of Breaking News were several Campaign Alerts, mostly about Barack Obama’s speech in Springfield, MO, a few items Breaking Today, one of which was President Bush’s cabinet meeting on energy prices and off-shore drilling, and the coverage of Yosemite wild fires was The Very Latest.

           It is not the intent of this essay to question the news-worthiness of these and other events covered by MSNBC that morning. They have to fill the air with something. Every flight by a certain airline taking off from a major port without passengers’ checked bags is worthy of 20 seconds of air-time if for no other purpose than as a public service to would-be American Airline passengers scheduled to depart JFK that day who might be tuned in. The issue at hand is the blatantly excessive use – or, more accurately, abuse – of the phrase, "breaking news."

           Since when is it necessary for a 24-hour news channel to tell us certain news items are breaking? Isn’t that what they do? I suspect the seed was planted when the nation was collectively enthralled by a white Bronco attempting a slow-motion getaway from a small armada of L.A. patrol cars with one of the greatest American sports heroes of the 20th century riding shotgun. The coverage of that event served as a coast-to-coast christening of the effectiveness of dramatic live video as a tool that will attract viewers and keep them locked – even by an event that, if not for a central figure as iconic as O.J. Simpson, may not have demanded much attention beyond southern California. 
          The ensuing years-long O.J. saga confirmed the power and value of the 24-hour news format. CNN stole ratings from daytime network TV and, sure enough, competition started to emerge. As newcomers, MSNBC and Fox News Channel gained a foothold in the newly competitive field, and the Columbine shooting and similar incidents began to unfold with tragic regularity, use of the phrase, "breaking news" became more and more common. Though it’s use increased during that period, news producers remained selective, and the phrase maintained both its original connotation – a critically important news event just happened, and this will be the first time you receive these bits of information and images – and therefore, its value in accurately conveying the relative importance of the news item. At the time, it was a legitimate and useful tool for the viewer.
           Of course, school shootings are not the only news items worthy of the Breaking News label. Nevertheless, because of a heightened frequency at the right time, combined with undisputed news-worthiness, they served – albeit by default – as the predominant content when the phrase began to regularly appear on screen, and thus became a major reference point for what we expected to immediately follow that queue. An unavoidable part of the memory of a school shooting is the uniquely complex set of emotions triggered by the profoundly troubling nature of those tragedies. By virtue of this association, the phrase itself came to imply high urgency, thus effectively compelling us to continue viewing.

           It’s safe to say that one airline’s dysfunctional baggage system at one airport
wouldn’t register on any “News Item Urgency Scale” that includes school shootings, tornadoes, and terrorist attacks. Presumably in the name of ratings, MSNBC has, with seemingly no regard for the relative urgency of the content, elected to exploit the instant visceral reaction incited by the Breaking News label. Such incongruous associations, combined with the hyper frequency of roughly 40 instances in both text and voice in a 135-minute stretch, dilutes the phrase to the point of comical proportions. Is that Alex Whitt or Amy Poehler in a bad wig? I don’t recall flipping over to E!.
          MSNBC’s credibility as a legitimate 24-hour news outlet is not the only thing at stake. For the portion of the viewing public that might actually notice this abuse of the phrase, "breaking news," but aren’t familiar with the inner workings of 24-hour news production, the face on the screen will be easiest scapegoat. Even industry insiders, who know that Ms. Witt and her colleagues have little if anything to do with decisions made during the tabloid-like onslaught, might be inclined to apply some guilt by association. Further, when an interview took place that morning, the anchor of the moment (the face on the screen changed seamlessly throughout) regularly cut the interviewee off in mid-sentence to get to the next breaking news item, thus adding to the chaos.

Full Screen Text: BREAKING NEWS
Text at Bottom of Screen: BREAKING NEWS

Video: Burning, mangled train with MSNBC logo on the side.

Springfield Correspondent, Kent Brockman: We’ve got some breaking news for you! A train wreck has occurred on MSNBC!  Early indications point to a malfunction in the brakes!  More details on that breaking story and other breaking news after the break!”…

So, the collateral damage goes to the reputations of the lovely Ms. Witt and her colleagues. (A Ladies of MSNBC calendar would be an instant hit.) As they’re forced to stumble from one “breaking” story to the next at a frenzied pace by a producer barking in their ears about lost luggage and the hardly surprising refusal by a judge to dismiss a murder case against a cop who’s had one wife murdered and another disappear, it’s hard to not feel bad for them. Of course, they’ll never be jobless, but the situation doesn’t help their professional integrity.
          In the name of fairness, I watched CNN starting around 9:30am on August 8, 2008. After about 90 minutes, it became clear that for the purposes of this essay, no further viewing was necessary. During that time, anchors voiced the phrase "breaking news" 4 times. Each use was for covering developments in the Russian invasion of Georgia.  I don’t recall an instance in which the anchor voiced the phrase as a tease without the on-screen text. It was always in combination leading directly into that story. Other on-screen text included Developing Story, New Developments, Exclusive, America Votes 2008, What They’re Saying, and Extreme Weather.
More than a week had passed since my initial viewing of MSNBC, so I switched over to see what’s breaking. Maybe an alligator wandered into a south Florida swimming pool or something. After an hour, I was pleasantly surprised. Not a single Campaign Alert. Nothing Breaking Today and none of the information I was getting was The Very Latest. Whatever Barack Obama had to say that day, wherever he was saying it, must not have been as Alert-worthy as what he said in Springfield, MO last week. He did nothing that broke today. Wow. What a slow day for urgent news. Or did MSNBC catch of wind of this essay? (Ahhh, narcissism at its best.)
          While it was clear that between my viewings, MSNBC had coincidentally implemented a new philosophy of great restraint regarding their arsenal of compelling visual text graphics, they just couldn’t shake off the Breaking-News monkey clutching their back. From 11:00am until noon, Ms. Witt voiced the phrase several times for both pre-commercial teases and story introductions, and the text appeared on screen for various different stories including Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the latest thrilling twist in Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilptrack’s increasingly embarrassing saga, a hurricane off the west coast of Mexico heading out into the Pacific Ocean, and the Texas Bus Crash in which 15 people where killed.  It is the daily intermingling of events as disparate as these, all with a "breaking news" label, that both perpetuates and illustrates the bait-and-switch nature of the abuse.
           Hey, MSNBC...give us a break.


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