Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Monday, February 03, 2003  

So much blogging to do, so little time...

Well, I should be addressing Listening's charges about the gassing of the Kurds (comments below), but.

Instead, my thoughts, like everyone else's in America, are inspired by the Columbia disaster. In particular, I was (and remain) amazed by the media’s response. Of the 19 stories run by NPR this morning, 12 were about the shuttle. In the national section of the New York Times, 23 of 34 stories were about the disaster. The Post was relatively restrained, with just over half its national section articles (12 of 21) about Columbia-related news. And this is on the third day after the tragedy. In fact, since 6 am Saturday (West Coast time), pretty much the only news—and on Saturday, the only programming, was about the accident.

Already there are debates about whether this is 1) overkill, or 2) the proper respect and interest in a major news story. And naturally, I fall on one side of the debate. But leaving aside that debate—because in the end it’s a matter of degree; everyone agrees that it was a tragedy—I’m interested in what it says about the media feedback loop.

When the accident first happened, there was no question but that this story would dominate the news. After some relatively short hours, though, the “news” was already out there. There was so little: “the Columbia has crashed, we don’t know why.” Corollary stories—descriptions about the accident, the few facts that were known about systems problems, and of course, biographies of the astronauts—also filled a 10-minute news spot. Thus it was that no matter what medium you turned to, you got this information, looped, with additional commentary by people more or less distant to the accident.

And yet the media continued to cover the story. Even in the absence of anything to actually report, the only stories available were the same improvisations on these now well-established themes. About midday yesterday, I began to wonder at what point does this kind of moment begin feeding itself. At a certain point, long after the news has been reported but while the story is still being covered, a news agency might wonder about breaking off coverage. Would they dare? Would there be charges of insensitivity?

And, because the force of the story has become so great, at what point does the media begin to create the size of the story by its coverage? There’s a tipping point in every news story—witness the Trent Lott comment—or not. I’d be willing to bet that the number of NASA-related stories in all of 2002 were fewer than those on Saturday. In today’s paper, NASA’s getting huge scrutiny. Legislation will result as a reaction to the news. Not to the disaster—if the media hadn’t covered this story much, NASA wouldn’t have been on a single lawmaker’s docket. On the other side, what major news stories are floating out there on the wrong side of the tipping point? Stories that, if told, might have enormous effect.

In America, we’re very proud of our “independent media.” But after this weekend, you have to wonder what level of independence the media actually exercise.

posted by Jeff | 11:58 AM |
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