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MUSIC MEN! The cable “news” nets love the sniper story—so much that they won’t do their jobs:


WHAT, US WORRY: In this morning’s Post, James Orenstein pens an op-ed in support of “ballistic fingerprinting.” Does the technology work? We don’t have a clue. But this is pretty much the sole policy question emerging from the Washington killings. Which brings us back to the final segment from Sunday’s Meet the Press.

After MTP wasted time and insulted its viewers with the ruminations of its “experts” (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/21/02), a highly instructive segment took place. In this session, Chuck Schumer debated the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre about ballistic fingerprinting. Here at THE HOWLER, the analysts came to the edge of their seats, eager to learn what wazzup. So what did our NBC affiliate, WBAL, do? Halfway through the instructive segment, WBAL broke in with a “special report” on the sniper story. This allowed the station’s news department to accomplish the following tasks:

  1. They got to showcase the haircut of their latest blonde anchor.
  2. They got to play their ominous “sniper” music.
  3. They got to display their eye-catching “Sniper” logos.
  4. They got to splash the treasured words “BREAKING NEWS” all across our screen.
But what was the BREAKING NEWS involved? Why had they dumped the Meet the Press segment? The station went to a meaningless briefing at the Richmond hospital where the latest sniper victim was being treated. The news value of this event? Non-existent. The fact that the victim was in “guarded” condition could have been conveyed in a crawl across the bottom of the screen.

But the TV news biz has been defiantly mindless throughout the sniper episode. “Bo” Dietl’s ramblings fill the air; all other issues have been banished from view. Even in less troubled times, this would be painful to sit through. But we stand on the brink of a possible war, and if Americans are a serious (and a moral) people, we have questions to ask before we proceed. Those essential questions have been wiped from view as the news biz blathers on with the sniper.

Without question, the sniper story is compelling entertainment. It’s also real news—although the story’s new value is oversold (see below). But moral people must find a way to consider the questions we face as a nation. For example, the following question has been on the table for weeks: Is there some sort of inspection regime which would satisfy the need to know about Iraq’s WMDs? Americans need to explore that question before decisions on war are reached. But have you seen the press corps exploring that topic? We’ve seen a lot of “sniper” logos, and we’ve heard a lot of ominous music. But here at THE HOWLER, we haven’t seen much attempt to examine the major questions surrounding this upcoming war.

In today’s Post, Walter Pincus has a substantial piece about the inspection regime the U.S. has proposed. The article appears on page A23. The sniper has commandeered the front page.

We agree with Andrew Sullivan today: “We can only pray we can disarm Saddam and liberate Iraq without war.” In context, Sully is speaking of the hope that internal revolt will depose Saddam. But a moral people will want to examine all their options at this time. Sadly, our TV “news” execs much prefer ominous music—and letting us gaze at their anchors.

KEEPING US BAREFOOT AND PREGNANT: The “news” networks love to play ominous music. And they love to flash their BREAKING NEWS logos. They love to keep their viewers worked up about stories that bring them big numbers. The DC area is in a frenzy about the wave of sniper killings. But Special Report did a service last night, actually trying to put the matter in some sort of larger perspective:

BRIT HUME: With schools closed, activities canceled, games called off, many people afraid to go shopping or even leave their homes, the question arises, what are the chances of any person being shot by the Beltway sniper? For answers we turn to John Lott, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, known for his research on the issue of guns and crime, welcome to you sir.

LOTT: Thank you.

HUME: Give me some sense of what the numbers show about your chances of being shot by the sniper as against your chances of dying some other way?

LOTT: Well, if you look at the counties in which he’s attacked, the normal murder rate for a month is about 34, so here we’ve had ten die.

HUME: In about three weeks.

LOTT: In about three weeks.

HUME: So that’s below the normal murder rate?

LOTT: That’s correct. And, if you look at for a month in traffic accidents, you have about 24 people on average who die in 2001 per month.

HUME: Per month.

LOTT: Per month.

HUME: So, we’re about half of that.

LOTT: That’s right.

HUME: Now, one would imagine if you looked at those numbers, you could say well, yes I can see them on the screen now, you know, that’s striking. I mean you’d think that people would say well, you know, I mean I had a guy say to me earlier today, he said “I just figure that I got about as much chance of winning the lottery without buying a ticket as I do of being shot by this guy.” Well, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but it doesn’t seem the chances are very high and yet we have this reaction. To what do you attribute the strength of this reaction? Is it the randomness? Is it the fact that it can seem to happen anywhere, what?

Or is it the fact that TV “news” stations love ominous music—and the ratings that come with the creepy-crawly songs they love to play?

Obviously, the area killings are a major crime issue and a major news story. But the human mind is poorly equipped to understand the numbers involved. (That’s why lotteries make so much money.) TV news orgs could help put the facts in perspective, as Hume and Lott tried to do last night. But that might hurt those wonderful ratings. And, if people were less hysterical about the killings, maybe news types would be forced to return to those boring old topics, like should we wage war in Iraq.

Gee—do you think anyone will die in a war in Iraq? Don’t worry. Your defiantly fatuous cable “news” types will shill that when the dying starts, also.