Guest Commentary: When there’s no news, all-news isn’t good news

Jan 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

This is the diamond jubilee year of a Bing Crosby movie called “Holiday Inn.” It had nothing to do with the motel chain, which had not yet been founded. In fact, highway accommodations were still being called not “motels” but “cabins.”
The movie was something else entirely. Its plot had to do with a resort owned by Crosby that was open only for holidays, when crowds of well-scrubbed young folk would gather to dance and sing a song written for that particular holiday by Irving Berlin. Besides his “Easter Parade,” which was recycled for the movie, there were almost a dozen new songs, among them, “Let’s Start the New Year Right,” “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” for Valentine’s Day, and of course, “White Christmas.”
Besides the music, there was much hilarity, and Fred Astaire did some dancing. As a movie, it was wonderfully entertaining at a time when such entertainment was greatly needed. But the basic business plan reeked of bad economics.
Another scheme, which might also reek of bad economics, could be of benefit in the current tense time. Using the same logic of noting only noteworthy occasions, why not an all-news cable channel that went on the air only when there was news?
That way, there would be no Eddie Bauer-bundled reporter reporting from the wind-swept scene every time a detachment of U.S. Marines searched a cave in the Oola Boola Mountains and found only some computer hard drives, three mismatched socks and a map of downtown Des Moines. That would then not be followed by a three-star general (retired) with a map and a pointer explaining that high mountains are colder than low valleys and a hard place to drive a tank. (This insight coming not from his years of battlefield experience but from the special courses he attended at the Army War College for retiring generals on how to supplement their pensions.)
There would be no live, instantaneous, “real time” TV coverage of a gathering of the tribal elders in the city of Kandygram to declare their commitment to the country’s hallowed tradition of popular rule, having carved up the territory and the loot in secret midnight sessions the night before. Americans would no longer learn more about Afghanistan than they do about Wyoming.
Reporting news only when there is news means no more stories about not finding Osama bin Laden, about the caves where he was just missed, the borders he might have crossed. When he is found, that will be the news.
By reporting news only when there is news to report, our cable channel will not need call-in shows during which disembodied voices of prairie Clausewitzes aggrievedly ask Maj. Gen. Stanley why the Pentagon was not using tactics that were successful at the Alamo; or present a “town hall” setting in which the audience is asked to pick which country should next be invaded by young people in uniform: “Iraq because of Saddam’s refusal to allow inspectors,” or “Somalia because of the vicious warlords,” or “Mozambique because they make lousy stamps.”
Meanwhile it is beyond debate that young people are paying attention to the news again. Network salesmen are finding other advertisers for the nightly newscast than denture adhesives and acid stomach nostrums. From the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 until Sept. 11, there had been no great, shattering events. After a half-century of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, Pearl Harbor, World War II, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, civil rights, the sexual revolution, assassinations, hippies and yuppies, it had all stopped.
For journalism, the time that followed was like the ’20s, between the Great War and the New Deal. The glamorization of organized crime, drugs in place of booze, flappers and suggestive dances and prophecies of moral breakdown, sensational courtroom dramas like Leopold and Loeb, the Scopes monkey trial and Bruno Richard Hauptmann charged with kidnapping and killing the Lindbergh baby. No historical parallel is perfect, but this one is pretty close. The judge in the Lindbergh case let the newsreels be filmed inside the courtroom, and it became the O.J. Simpson trial of its time.
We seem to be slipping back into that kind of time. We surely will, unless all-news cable reports news only when there is some. Either a cable news channel broadcasts news only when there is news, or as it does now, it broadcasts whatever passes for news, of which there must be enough to keep the commercials apart.
It’s the coward’s way out. All it takes to find that kind of news is a sharp eye and a keen sense of smell: Gary Condit has been organizing his campaign for re-election; in Florida, O.J. Simpson keeps having trouble with the law; the supermarket tabloids are back on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.
As Father Divine used to say: Peace, it’s wonderful!
Reuven Frank was twice president of NBC News, from 1968-1973 and from 1982-1984.