Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Or to have too much TV coverage of a good story? Some people took after CNN for just this: spending too much time last week covering "The Triumph" Carnival Cruise ship being towed back into port in Mobile after losing power in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Jon Stewart reminded CNN reporters that they weren't "heroes" for reuniting people who had always intended to be away (albeit in more pleasant circumstances). And Joe Scarborough mockingly said that he really didn't know much about the hearings to confirm Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense because he'd been watching CNN and knew only about the cruise debacle.
But it's not as if everyone in television news didn't feature this story prominently in their coverage -- including all the cable news channels and all the broadcast news outlets (national and local). It was a good story -- and a particularly good story for television. All those images of helicopters and tug boats escorting the crippled pleasure ship back into port at a pace slower than we could walk to the grocery store. The video of the tent city on deck. The images of sewage seeping through the carpets. The sight of people on deck trying to reach their loved ones. CNN may have given the story more time and attention, but it was only a matter of degree.
And it's not as if TV news didn't regularly go all-out on stories that we all look back on and wonder what the fuss was about. Every time there's a shark attack or one of the British royals gets in trouble or a celebrity mixes it up with one of the papparazi, we can count on extensive coverage, from morning to night. There's nothing wrong with covering things people are interested in. Who are we to tell them they shouldn't be?
The problem isn't with what TV news covers, it's with what it doesn't cover. Or doesn't cover nearly enough. Take Syria, for example. No one knows for sure, but the U.N. estimates that over 60,000 people have been killed in the fighting since the uprising began in March 2011. Others say this estimate is low. The flood of Syrian refugees into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq is approaching one million. Quite apart from the enormous humanitarian crisis, this vicious conflict is taking place in a pivotal country in the center of the dangerous and important middle east -- a conflict that could de-stabilize several governments in the region and has Iran deeply involved. There's just no question but that this is an important story.
What's more, it's a story that can be told well on television. Some TV reporters have shown us this, as did my former colleague, Clarissa Ward, who recently received an Alfred I. Dupont Award for her reporting on Syria for CBS News. In fairness, the other national TV news organizations have reported intermittently from and about Syria. But none has shown the kind of enthusiasm and follow-through that we saw when it came to the cruise to nowhere in the Gulf of Mexico.
It's not just Syria, of course, that we need more coverage of on TV news. There are hot spots around the world that we get only drive-by treatment of, if we get any at all. Everything from North Korea (which we hear about pretty much only if it explodes a nuclear bomb) to the Congo to growing tensions between China and Japan. And remember Afghanistan? We still have over 60,000 troops actively fighting what remains of a war there. Yet, when do we see coverage of this field of battle other than as part of the political warfare being conducted in Washington?
Television remains a very powerful medium for entertaining and for informing. To this day, television news remains the place that people say they turn to most for their news and information -- more even than the Internet/mobile (although they're gaining fast). There's a wide world out there of stories that TV can inform us about -- a world that includes stricken cruise ships and shark attacks. But if we're to get what we need from TV news, we also need thorough, expert, and -- yes -- enthusiastic coverage of some of the stories that truly will go down in history.
If only Carnival cruised to Syria.