Broken News

I’m just old enough to remember (vaguely) “special editions” of newspapers, and definitely recall those days in the crazy 1960s when a “Special Bulletin” on network TV could mean a war, an assassination, or even (or so we feared in 1963) the impending fiery annhiliation of much of the planet.

So to this day I experience a spasm of apprehension when an “Alert” or “Breaking News” pops up on the tube, and I generally avoid (for multiple reasons, actually) Drudge and his damn sirens. But as Dave Weigel exhaustively documents today, the concept of “breaking news” has become so debased that it resembled one of those inflated, devalued currencies the gold bugs fret about. Dig it:

On Thursday morning, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., I engaged in a random test of the modern cable news “breaking” regime. You’ve probably already forgotten about Thursday morning. There were no surprises or celebrity deaths or arrests of bathroom-prowling senators. And yet between Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, I watched 19 news ALERTS explode across my Vizio.

At 9 a.m., the Fox show America’s Newsroom began with an ALERT about “new details in the Secret Service scandal.” The details had been broken by other media hours earlier. At 9:07 a.m., Fox ALERTED me that something had “just crossed the wires”—a lousy jobless report, 386,000 new claims, coming out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At 9:59 a.m., Fox ALERTED me to the static scene outside the Air and Space Museum, where the space shuttle Discovery would eventually be escorted to its resting place by some astronauts. One minute later, I got an ALERT that “the White House has issued an ultimatum to Paul Ryan.”

Absolutely none of these things were breaking news. Hours later, MSNBC’s Alex Wagner interrupted her show twice with “breaking news here of a plane that went down off the coast of Florida.” This was breaking, sort of, in the sense that NBC’s reporters were getting the details themselves. But it was local Florida news masquerading as national news. And this was all before Fox News gave itself over to a high-speed car chase in Texas.

Being a self-consciously old-school reporter, Brother Weigel is concerned about the threat bogus “breaking news” poses to the credit due to original reporting of a significant story. I’m more concerned about the threat to my nervous system.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.