Why you should care
Because we don’t have time for bullshit.
It was a fine fall morning, and, with a piping-hot cup of coffee in hand, I ambled over to my desk. That’s when the angry, red “Breaking News” banner flashing on the newsroom’s flat-screen caught my eye and ruined my equanimity. My stomach plunged, primed for catastrophe. But the text that followed read: “Hillary Clinton Would Consider Additional Debates.”
Really, CNN, that’s your definition of must-see news? In an era when the public’s opinion of journalists is discouragingly low, such clickbait antics do a lot more damage than just wasting 30 seconds of my life: It threatens to dumb down public discourse and numb us all. “If everything is a crisis, then pretty soon people are going to have crisis fatigue,” says Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. The result, she says, is they tune you out. But how do we put a stop to the chicanery? The way we solve everything else: fines.
It’s a simple enough idea: Grant the otherwise-anemic Federal Communications Commission the power to fine news stations that don’t act in the public interest. Already the FCC levies charges against stations that broadcast vulgar content, like cursing or nudity, as in 2004 when it fined Fox $1.2 million for broadcasting strippers. Why not just include all news networks, which in essence are meant to be a public service anyway? No strippers, no “damn”s and no senseless mashing of the breaking-news button.
“Of course, it’s an absurdity,” says Todd Gitlin, a media ethics professor at Columbia University, who adds that almost everyone is guilty of abusing the breaking-news banner. CNN is not the only culprit: Fox News’ “Alert” fills a similarly vapid role, and NBC’s Chuck Todd, who publicly condemned such laissez-faire use of the phrase, isn’t exactly innocent either. “It’s the equivalent of a screaming headline or a tabloid cover that shouts out, ‘Look at me, read me, you can’t live without us.’”
Sure, no one wants more government overreach, and Supreme Court decisions have limited the FCC’s role in newsroom practices — for good reason, aka the First Amendment and freedom of the press and stuff we care about very much. (Neither the FCC nor CNN responded to requests for comment.) As Kirtley points out, “We don’t want the government deciding what is and isn’t news.”
But then you see something egregious: CNN lead political anchor Wolf Blitzer holding a bag of chips, above a breaking-news banner that reads: “SunChips ‘Bags’ Noisy Bags.” Or a Fox News alert confirming that the “Soda Machine in Newsroom Is Out of Mr. Pibb.” That’s when you start to wonder.