"...And there we must leave the Prime Minister's statement to get the latest weather and snow reports from Chamonix. Vicky."
Everyone has their favourite grumble about rolling news channels. The locked down running orders, the interminable two-ways, the speculation and opinion purporting to be news, the hyping of the trivial, the self-important graphics. And there are so many of them – from CNN to Al Jazeera to Fox, Sky News and the BBC News Channel – that there's plenty of naffness, bias and cock-ups to complain about.
Certainly many of the whinges are justified. Rolling news can so easily become rolling rumour. Remember Sky's reporting on the morning of 7 July 2005 – when, courtesy of inaccurate phone-in reportage, we were led to believe that scores of simultaneous explosions were happening? Or BBC World's interview with a faker pretending to represent Union Carbide, offering billions in compensation to Bhopal victims – a story which someone obviously thought too good to check.
These were crass errors, certainly. But do the mistakes overshadow the whole rolling news phenomenon? Certainly that's the view of Howard Rosenberg and Charles Feldman, whose No Time To Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-hour News Cycle is an assault on the entire rolling news venture. Their main criticism, as the title suggests, is the sheer speed of modern news-gathering and the impetus to get the story to air quickly – without the time to check, or even think about the ramifications. And they point to several examples – the OJ Simpson trial, the Jeremiah Wright controversy, etc – where a trivial matter has been overhyped into momentous news.
In this, the authors really do have a point. But I think they've got it the wrong way round. Yes, the trivial is often overhyped. But worse mistakes are made when the momentous is treated as trivial. Too often, programme editors rush stories to air before they've had a think about the true meaning. Whether it be the infamous Gilligan report at 6.07am on Radio 4 or the Bhopal interview, it seems that nobody stopped to think "what does it mean if this is true?" before airing the stuff. Both stories – had they been true – were absolutely momentous. Gilligan was suggesting that the government "probably knew" that they were peddling lies. The faux Union Carbide interviewee was breaking huge new ground in corporate responsibility. But far from overhyping, ramping up trivial stories, what the news editors did was the opposite: fail to spot enormous ones.
For Rosenberg and Feldman, "the nasty little truth about 24-hour news – whether cable TV or the internet – is that most of it is not news." They are right, of course. But that observation – far from being a "nasty little truth" – might well have come from the University of the Bleeding Obvious. Watch any rolling news channel for more than about five minutes and you'll realize that a lot of what you see – speculation about possible floods in Melton Mowbray or Breaking News about Lindsay Lohan's splinter – isn't news. But no news isn't news, and Rosenberg and Feldman pull out all the overhyping stops, all the tricks of the faux-news trade, to suggest that their observations are in some way groundbreaking.
Thus we get breathless blurb on the book's back: "This is a dangerous book because it's all true" we are told by TV producer Linda Ellerbee. "You need this book. Read it" opines Ray Bradbury. Most terrifying of all, we get the imprecations of the former White House press secretary Bill Moyers: "Read Rosenberg and Feldman... and start thinking about how to save yourselves and democracy." Save yourselves? From CNN? Inside the book, too, the authors have clearly learnt the worst excitable lessons from rolling news.
Tiny verbless paragraphs, with lots of screaming exclamation marks!!
One chapter is just a transcribed conversation between the two self-congratulatory authors – something which even the most desperate rolling news editor might find dull and repetitive.
In short, Rosenberg and Feldman are right to say that there's a lot wrong with rolling news, and in particular that the need for speed can lead to bad judgements. But they are woefully wrong to suggest that baby, bathwater and all have little of value and threaten democracy.
Of course, as someone who makes a living from a 24-hour channel, I would say that. But it is absolutely undoubtable that rolling news does do some valuable things, things which network TV would never find the room for. I regret the fact, for example, that Panorama no longer brings warring parties together for live studio debate. But they don't – so we do. The two sides in the Darfur conflict had never debated in a TV studio, until we brought them together on Al Jazeera English. If that's not a public service, I don't know what is.
Charlie Courtauld is the editor of 'Frost Over the World' on Al Jazeera English
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