We tend to think that the three major cable news networks just compete against each other. They do, but they also compete for our attention against the entire universe of cable networks. Whether it's E!, Bravo or ESPN, they all want us to watch. It's a war -- a cable TV ratings war -- to get and keep our attention.
The daily rundowns of any cable news network can be unexciting. There's a limit to the number of medical breakthroughs we have each day. There aren't all that many dogs that save their owners by dialing 911. And when the news itself is boring, it's hard to keep people watching. That's only attained with big stories. Gone are the days when news divisions were "loss leaders" for a network or a company.
So what happens? News networks naturally become desperate for the big stories, the ones that allow them to roll out emblazoned graphics that say "BREAKING NEWS" along with dramatic music and sound effects to remind us that this news, unlike yesterday's, really is breaking.
News networks get so jacked up about big stories, they literally throw all their resources at them -- even to the exclusion of the rest of the news.
It's as though networks can't hold two competing thoughts in their heads at the same time. It's Egypt or Wisconsin, Japan or Libya, Libya or domestic politics, one or the other. Sometimes it's a matter of resources, but mostly it's a matter of ratings.
In the case of our politics, the need for the "big story" may be one of the reasons our discourse has degraded, why there's so much anger and vitriol. Each side yells louder, and says more extreme things, in order to get heard and get covered most. And if our politicians aren't being extreme, pundits and opinion shows will do it for them.
Bipartisanship, cooperation and civility just aren't "entertaining." They don't pay the bills. The guy who's willing to say each side has good ideas and tries to find practical, workable solutions is boring. If he weren't, he'd get a lot more coverage and we might get a lot more done as a country.
The same holds true when it comes to international events. The "big story" gets more coverage, because it feeds the ratings monster. And with more coverage, it seems even bigger, more serious and important than it often really is. In the case of war, that attention -- taken to the extreme -- may even make it seem like something needs to be done by us. Coverage can drive a short-sighted outcry for intervention.
My point is not to take away from the seriousness of wars or debates on important domestic issues and government policies, or to question the coverage of these issues or our involvement as a country. My point is to question the relative amount of coverage a story gets and why it gets that coverage.
In other words, do ratings wars drive us toward actual wars?
If Libya weren't good for ratings, would we have seen the pictures of death, destruction and brutality for the past month to the extent we have? Would we have seen the constant stream of reports showing how events in Libya affect not just Libyan men, women and children -- or even the region -- but us? How often has someone reported on whether we will "pay more at the pump?"
And if we hadn't seen those stories, would we be enforcing a no-fly zone right now? If we had seen that same level of reporting on Rwanda, all day long, night after night, with the story leading most if not all newscasts as "breaking," would we have done something to stop that genocide?
What drives the difference in coverage between the two stories? What drives the difference in determining US intervention? That Libya is part of a revolution -- and potentially democracy -- sweeping the Arab world? That Gaddafi is crazy? That Libya is an OPEC country with the ninth-largest oil reserves in the world? That Rwanda has virtually no natural resources, its economy is centered on subsistence agriculture and that it's ranked as one of the world's poorest countries? All of the above?
Some may believe that this is a chicken-and-egg situation: it's impossible to know whether the coverage is driving the story or if the story is driving the coverage. They also believe that our national interest, not the degree of coverage, ultimately drives our response as a country.
National interest undoubtedly is the motivation. But I believe it's also the case that cable news fuels the fire and "sells" us on a course of action. Too much coverage carries with it the risk of creating a false sense of importance or urgency. Example: we're now knee-deep in a military intervention in Libya, and we still don't really know who these Libyan rebels are. We're supporting a group that no one -- at least in the media -- has really bothered to take a closer look at.
There's no easy solution to controlling extreme coverage and overexposure other than restraint, a sense of fair play and what my University of Minnesota writing professor called the most important tool of our craft: good judgment.
The solution is recognizing the difference between reporting and over-reporting, between informing and inundating, between highlighting and hyping. The solution is to have good individual judgment -- by reporters, producers, network news heads -- prevail over the need for ratings and profits by their owners, the large media conglomerates. It's a tall order, but there's no other choice. Otherwise, we run the risk of having what's good for cable news becoming what's good for our country. That's not something we need to just be aware of, but also wary of.