Tube Talk: History in the making: News vs. fluff
By Paula Hendrickson
Sunday night, May 1, one of my best friends called, but instead of saying “hello,” she asked, “Do you have the TV on?” Given my career path, did she really need to ask? The TV was indeed on—I was watching AMC’s The Killing, and the DVR was recording something on another channel. “Good. Then you know something big is happening.”
Actually, I didn’t. AMC isn’t exactly where one turns for breaking news. Luckily, my friend was more up-to-date: “CNN said the president is about to make an announcement, and since it’s 11:30 on a Sunday night in Washington, it’s got to be serious.” She wondered if there had been another terrorist attack, while my mind went to possible news out of Libya or even something domestic. I turned to a major network and waited for the press conference.
Before President Barack Obama (D) took to the podium, word broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed. That’s when my sister called to see if I’d heard the reports. While waiting for the president to speak, I flipped between several channels, trying to glean what little information was available.
This is the sort of situation that wall-to-wall news coverage is made for. Ditto the aftermath of the tornado devastation in the southern United States. Yet, much of the weekend was spent re-hashing every tiny detail of the Royal Wedding. (How many times can you see the footage where reporters tried in vain to lip-read exchanges between the bride, groom and members of their bridal party? Several times the supposed dialog didn’t match their lips at all.)
[Disclaimer: I woke early to watch the wedding. I made tea and scones. I thoroughly enjoyed the pageantry and regality of the occasion. Sure, the mind reeled at how much money was spent on the big day, but at least they were spurring the British economy and keeping florists, milliners and bakers in business. For me, and millions of other viewers across the world, the Royal Wedding was more entertaining fluff than breaking news.]
Yes, the wedding was part of history, but it’s not a history-in-the-making type of event that changes millions of people’s lives or world dynamics. It left me wondering why some networks sent multiple reporters to cover the wedding. I found it refreshing to hear that when NBC news anchor Brian Williams arrived in London and learned about the massive tornado outbreak, he turned right around and came back to the U.S. He realized what the more important story really was.
World news was so focused on the wedding that I didn’t even know until Sunday that the Beatification of Pope John Paul II had taken place in the Vatican City this weekend. That might not be earth-shattering news, either, but it deserved at least a little airtime.
It seems most news-gathering organizations (not just TV outlets) need to ask themselves: What would have happened had bin Laden been killed when most of their A-list reporters were scrambling to cover every conceivable angle of the wedding? Then, they need to re-assess their definitions of hard news and human interest stories.
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to email@example.com.
From the May 11-17, 2011 issue
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