The search for three climbers lost on Mt. Hood consumed a vast amount of airtime this week, even by cable news standards. Bob explains how a tragic storm in Oregon ushered in a perfect storm for TV coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. We haven't much space for letters this week, but we thought we'd squeeze in this one, from Fred Tannenbaum who works for the Charlotte North Carolina Business Journal. "On the way to school this morning," he wrote, "my 11-year-old asked, why all the attention is being given to the search for the missing Mount Hood mountain climbers, when people die closer to us each day." I told him that was a very good question for which I didn't really have a good answer. I tried explaining that no one is really saying these climbers are more "special" than anyone living nearby. The fact they were climbing the mountain and became trapped was something that people were interested in. CORRESPONDENT: On Mt. Hood, the search continues for two missing climbers, after rescuers... CORRESPONDENT: Theirs is a story of a routine climb gone wrong. CORRESPONDENT: All eyes on Mt. Hood and the rescue efforts there. BOB GARFIELD: Tannenbaum continued, "I don't know how well I explained it without reciting the old saw, 'If it bleeds, it leads.' So I thought I'd throw the question open to OTM, if you'd like to take a shot."
Well, the kid asked a good question. And yours was a good answer. It's all about what the guys with the fedoras and short neckties used to call "human interest," that unquenchable curiosity about kids trapped in wells, missing interns, runaway brides, homicidal football players, perverted pop idols and anything sordid involving a Kennedy.
It's all legitimate news, up to a point, because it is aberrant, ongoing and unresolved. But it is ultimately insignificant because, unlike, for instance, war, politics, public policy and natural disaster, these stories affect absolutely nobody but the principals. The only thing the wall-to-wall coverage of Mt. Hood offers the audience is drama.
But we--like drama. And, therefore, cable news really likes drama. As Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post put it, "Cable is increasingly in the market for soap opera stories, with an emotional component." Ratings for the news channels surged across the board this week, as the fate of the climbers hung in the balance.
Pandering has always been good business. It can even yield some good journalism. But usually, and especially in this case, in the midst of war and political upheaval at home and abroad, all the big news has done on cable TV is push the real news aside.