Networks have reached a new low, enhancing the emotional impact of news with soundtracks and graphics. Newspapers overdo grieving story.
When I first heard the US-Afgan War had begun Sunday, I tuned to WABC Radio. I was appalled to hear ominous soundtrack music cleverly playing underneath a talk show host’s interviews as well as recorded statements of President Bush and Tony Blair. It sounded like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.
The shameless news producers of the television networks have spent the last three weeks sensationalizing and wallowing in the misery and horror of the World Trade Center attack with bumber slides reading “America Under Attack,” “America Recovers,” “America Mourns,” “US Responds,” while planes whacked into the WTC towers 10 times an hour. The on-going affect on television during the period after attack was one of an unfolding “show” to be sold.
Make no mistake. The networks loved this story, Dan’s tears not withstanding. Interview after interview, dealt interminably on the suffering. Commentator after commentator provided juicy horrors about the hijackings. To this reporter’s mind, this is what is wrong with television and radio news today. Events are sensationalized to keep you watching. To entertain, no matter how morbid, more than inform. Stringing out 24-hour coverage means more reporting of rumor and innuendo, without facts that stabilize.
The New York all-news radio stations and info-stations were not above electronic enhancement either. On radio, the soundbiters spliced up worrisome little musical signature bits with voiceovers replaying screams of “Oh my God,” comments, played over music, to signal “more” of the ongoing rescue mission coverage.
I do not know about you, but these intro bits made me feel worse. I do not need to feel the pain. I feel it. However, radio in its ceaseless interviews with suffering families, made us feel that more. It was immobilizing, and I feel, irresponsible and ghoulish coverage to overproduce the attacks in this manner.
Now, as of Sunday night, CNN, NBC and CBS, Fox News have a war to cover. We can look forward to “America Strikes Back” slides and moving trailers, I presume. Correspondents in safari shirts, repeating what the anchorpersons have just said, only from locations. This is not news. This is allowing you, the viewer to participate in the adventure.
Lest we leave the print media unscathed, I have to say that the unending 24 pt type headlines, the funeral coverage and the eulogies could be considered legitimate coverage. But is it responsible, compassionate, constructive coverage?
Reading the eulogies (especially in The Times), must be moving. I have read the esteem in which many of the dead were held by colleagues and families. But, they certainly depressed me even more. I do not think it is good for anybody’s mental health to be reading day-after-day about these poor souls, and I tried not to. The injustice of the deaths, immobilizes and makes trivial our daily pursuits from a mental health standpoint.
This is not to mention the heaped-on misery that families talking about their dead relatives were put through by the reporters getting the information. What an awful job. (“This is John Bailey of the CitizeNetReporter, your husband was killed in the WTC, could you tell me what he was like?”) I cannot believe that families are calling up the papers to talk about these folks. Once again, the media is trying to make you feel a certain way. It’s telling you to have compassion. Believe me we feel, guys. That is not their job.
The Journal News has shown a compassionate side in eliminating their obituary line charges for families whose loved ones died in the attack. However, is it compassion to seek out these grieving mothers and husbands and interview them? I don’t think so. I think it’s getting copy. It is not news. Inevitably, you also have great praise heaped upon some victims, and less praise heaped on others.
Write stories on coping with the grief, yes. Write stories on how you might be feeling, yes. But, we have seen few stories that talk about how we the living can cope with the losses. The eulogies and funeral coverage may inspire others to make more of their own lives, true. But exactly what effect this perpetual funeral has on all of us is hard to decipher. One benefit is that it may bring us together to be more tolerant and compassionate of each other.
But, when will the media ease up on the eulogizing and coverage?Once you start doing individual profiles of every person missing, you are obligated journalistically (as The Times has discovered to its probable, behind-the-scenes chagrin), to writing over 5,000 of these thumbail profiles. At that rate, we should be reading Times WTC Victim profiles for the next year and a half, unless they cut it off after reaching a certain number.
Not that these thumbnails are bad. But are they good for us? Do they inspire you? Do they make you feel better? Do they make you less fearful? They make me feel bad, remorseful and determined to live better myself. Perhaps that is good. But we’ve never covered this kind of thing before. The papers do not know what to do about it, how to cover it, and are now stuck in traditional “aftermath coverage.”
As to news coverage of the new war on terrorism,
let us return to reporting. What is reporting? It is observation. Fact-finding. Confirming.
When Edward R. Murrow was reporting from London during World War II, he detailed the blitz. He reported without musical preludes, without “key slides.” He used his observations to paint what was happening. He did not have to ask Londoners “how they felt.”
Here is an excerpt from one of his broadcasts aired September 22, 1940, 61 years ago. It could have been written the night of September 11, 2001:
“I’m standing again tonight on a rooftop looking out over London, feeling rather large and lonesome. In the course of the last fifteen or twenty minutes there’s been considerable action up there, but at the moment, there’s an ominous silence hanging over London. But at the same time a silence that has a great deal of dignity. Just straightaway in front of me the search lights are working. I can see one or two bursts of antiaircraft fire far in the distance. Just on the roof across the way I can see a man wearing a tin hat, a pair of powerful night glasses to his eyes, scanning the sky. Again, looking in the opposite direction, there is a building with two windows gone. Out of one window there waves something that looks like a white bed sheet, a window curtain swinging free in this night breeze. It looks as though it were being shaken by a ghost. There are a great many gosts around these buildings in London. The searchlights straightaway, miles in front of me, are still scratching that sky. There’s a three-quarter moon riding high. There was one burst of shellfire almost straight in the Little Dipper.
Down below in the streets I can see just that red and green wink of the traffic lights: one lone taxicab moving slowly down the street. Not a sound to be heard. As I look out across the miles and miles of rooftops and chimney pots, some those dirty-gray fronts of the buildings look almost snow-white in this moonlight here tonight. And the rooftop spotter across the way swings around, looks over in the direction of the searchlights, drops his glasses and just stands there. There are hundreds and hundreds of men like that standing on rooftops in London tonight watching for fire bombs, waiting to see what comes out of this steel-blue sky. The searchlights now reach up very, very faintly on three sides of me.There is a flash of a gun in the distance but too far away to be heard.(c)
This is reporting, ladies and gentlemen. Do you see the difference?He reports a tense situation by describing it clearly. Here is Murrow’s description of a bombing raid on London October 10, 1940:
This is London, ten minutes before five in the morning. Tonight’s raid has been widespread. London is again the main target. Bombs have been reported from more than fifty districts. Raiders have been over Wales in the west, the Midlands, Liverpool, the southwest and northeast. So far as London is concerned, the outskirts appear to have suffered the heaviest pounding. The attack has decreased in intensity since the moon faded from the sky.
…Five minutes later, a German bomber came boring down the river. We could see his exhaust trail like a pale ribbon stretched straight across the sky. Half a mile downstream there were two eruptions and a third, close together. The first tow looked like some giant had thrown a basket of flaming golden oranges high in the air. The third was just a balloon of fire enclosed in black smoke above the housetops. The observer didn’t bother with his gunsight and indicator for that one. Just reached for his night glasses, took one quick look, picked up his telephone, and said, “Two high explosives and one oil bomb,” and named the street where they had fallen.
…And back at headquarters I saw a man laboriously and carefully copying names in a big ledger – the list of firemen killed in action during the last month. There were about a hundred names. I can now appreciate what lies behind that line in the morning communiqués: “All fires were quickly brought under control.”©
Thank you, Ed, as CNN would say.
In the weeks ahead, we are going to be seeing news conferences, stand-up pieces by reporters, and so much commentating it will make your head spin. It would be responsible if the networks and radio stations stopped packaging, overproducing, and underreporting. Observe and report what you see.
The great strength of Murrow was he reported facts which people could deal with here in America. He did not dwell on how terrible the blitz was. He interviewed, sure. But, always to get facts which by his delivery of them made the horrible palatable without fear.
I have a few news tips for the networks: Do not telecast and broadcast every soundbite from every side. Most of what is “spun” is propaganda. Report, do not distort. Interview, do not stick microphones in diplomats’, protestors’, congresspersons’, and Islamic and Israeli faces. Interviewing means asking tough questions in a sequence designed to produce facts.
Let us lose the intro and closing graphic and audio “bridges,” it is in poor taste. Let us return to reporting. We all feel low enough. Trust me.
© 1967, the estate of Edward R. Murrow. From the book, In Search of Light, the Broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow 1938-1961