There are two general assumptions about the media that have become so common it’s stopped occurring to us to question them: first, that newspapers, and those who remain in their employ, are to be pitied; and, second, that TV news is, on the whole, to be derided. TV news is vapid, we say. Its programs are “prisoners of demography and cultural shifts that are as irreversible as the physical laws of the universe.” Hell, we say, it’s not even real news anymore. “It’s official,” The New York Times’s Alessandra Stanley declared back in March, “the networks no longer cover news, they slap it onto the bottom edge of their regular programming like Post-it notes.”
Stanley was describing some networks’ decisions, on the evening of the March 4 Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, and Vermont primaries, to offer scrolling “crawls” rather than live coverage of the states’ returns—but, then, the details here hardly matter. Stanley might as well have been talking about the cable news’ channels decision to air hours and hours of punditry each night; she might as well have been talking about the countless hours the cable channels devoted to Sarah Palin’s wardrobe or SNL’s latest skit or Hillary Clinton’s hairstyle or the disappearance, nearly six months ago, of Caylee Anthony; she might as well have been talking about the relatively few hours those same channels devoted to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the crisis in the Congo. TV news, both on the nets and on cable, is certainly ripe for accusations of Post-Itism.
Nevertheless, during the 2008 election season, the Big Three cable news networks set records for viewership; their ratings success, you have to think, signals that the news programs have been doing something right. In some ways, they have. To the extent that TV news succeeded in covering 2008’s campaign, it did so in doing what it’s always done: very broadly, putting the news in a human context. Live TV depicts public figures in a manner much more essential—and, occasionally, authentic—than print or even blogs, at this point, can do; the filter of text is at once much higher and much wider than the filter of the screen.
Compare Sarah Palin’s televised interviews—with Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson, Sean Hannity—to the many profiles published in newspapers, blogs, and magazines in the days since her nomination. Those interviews might not have contained as much information—or, more specifically, facts—as the profiles; their advantage, rather, is in the conveyance of those little habits, of movement and of mind, that don’t always make it to the page: Palin’s defensive discomfort with Gibson, her tension with Couric, her ease with Hannity. These are, as journalism instructors like to term them, “telling details”: useful information that helps voters comprehend the candidate as not merely an amalgamation of policies and a spewer of sound bites, but also as a human being. It’s not make-or-break information, but it’s valuable nonetheless.
And then there’s the corollary to the “telling detail” benefit: capturing unscripted moments that are, often unintentionally, revelatory. (See “Bachmann, Michele”—and, for that matter, “Jackson, Jesse.”) Live TV is, obviously, best at this—but even when prerecorded, televised news has a quality of personal serendipity that other platforms still lack. Sure, YouTube and other Web-based platforms may certainly be moving in this direction; but, for now, the best mechanism we have to elicit and record those elusive Moments of Humanity from our public figures is the lens of a TV camera.
And yet. As we’ve seen over and over again, during this election cycle and beyond it, TV is also quite good at seizing those moments of humanity and flogging them to death, day after day after day—not only lulling us with the sense-dulling and complacency-inducing repetition of loop coverage, but also tacitly endorsing the notion that “authenticity” is not merely illustrative, but also revelatory. (On Bachmann: Did you hear what she said?! Will it cost her her seat? How is she McCarthyesque? How isn’t she? What does it mean to be patriotic? Because did you hear what she said?! Will it cost her her seat? Et cetera.)
Thus, TV news’s oft-discussed (and oft-disgusting) tropism toward both repetition and its corollary: sensationalism. This is most often attributed to the size of the news hole—Well, we have twenty-four hours of air to fill, after all. Of course we’re going to need to be repetitive, and to be interesting—but I’d argue that the problem isn’t merely one of size. It’s also—and maybe more so—one of speed.