For the global news media, the intrigue of the missing Malaysia Flight 370 comes as nothing less than manna from heaven. The mystery makes viewers and readers clamor to know every detail and nuance of the unfolding story.
I know, I know: Taken at face value, that assertion sounds positively awful and tactless. But please hear me out before you start throwing rocks. Nobody should ever make stupid Internet-oriented jokes about the situation -- even on Twitter, where it can sometimes seem like the wild, west of the media ecosystem -- or diminish in any way the emotional suffering of the passengers' loved ones.
And if it seems crass, insensitive and altogether creepy to discuss how an industry profits from this level of human misery, kindly remember: We are talking about the m-e-d-i-a. All bets are off.
As the saying goes: In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. The same can be true of the media in America in the 24/7 news age.
The world has happily sat in the grip of the endless coverage since the flight veered horribly off course going on two weeks ago. The story again led the evening news broadcasts on Monday night, proving that the story continues to have legs and, in fact, appears in no way to be diminishing in shock value. The viewers can't get enough of the story, especially trying to figure out how this could have happened, was terrorism involved, could it happen again and what is the fate of the passengers?
As Bill Carter wrote this week in the New York Times: "On CNN, the plane rises from misty clouds accompanied by an eerie background score while anchors offer intriguing details — some new, some days old — of the disappearance of Flight 370. The reports, broadcast continually, often are augmented by speculation — sometimes fevered, sometimes tempered — about where the flight might have come to rest. And viewers are eating it up."
As usual in a huge story where mystery stands at its core appeal, the journalists are shedding more heat than light. In the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, reporters are scurrying around trying to get at the "truth." No angle is too weird or sensational to pursue or openly discuss. Diabolical airline personnel? Pilots with a secret agenda? Terrorist activity? Sure -- why not?
The media are not evil by nature. Journalists would be mortified to be accused of taking advantage of this story as a way to boost TV ratings, sell more newspapers and goose page views on a website. They would say that it is their job to give the people what they want. They would argue self-righteously that critics complain when they cover Kim Kardashain's antics and accuse the news media of engaging low-brow grabs for higher ratings. See more: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/18/business/media/cnns-ratings-surge-with-coverage-of-the-mystery-of-...
Now, they'd continue, here we have a major international story of tremendous financial and human import and we're putting on a full-court press to satisfy our constituents -- and you still aren't happy.
No wonder Hollywood delights in making journalists look like the bad guys so often. For every "All the President's Men," when the scribes courageously followed the money and wrote the real story of the Nixon White House, we have "Ace in the Hole" and more recently, "Mad City." These are films in which a semi-sleazy, wholly opportunistic reporter seizes the day in a story of tragedy and twists things around to boost his career.
The movies were terrific. The representations of the journalists was targeted and distressing.
Now, it seems, the entire news media industry is wearing the villain's hat. And it fits.
When Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Iran and held officials as prisoners for months, ABC News captured the melodrama and anxiety succinctly in a banner headline: American Held Hostage. You remember the story: Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage for 444 days (stretching from November 4, 1979, until January 20, 1981), in a shocking and gripping saga.
This lone story paved the way for the "Nightline" program on ABC and virtually single-handedly changed the way American TV networks cover big stories. Before long, melodrama replaced actual drama. Speculation trumped the absence of genuine news. Conspiracytheories superseded scientific theories.
Yes, the journalists are correct in insisting that they're doing their jobs in giving the people what they want. And sure, they are following a meaningful story, instead of Hollywood celebrity gossip nonsense.
But do they have to do it so ... crudely?