Saturday, August 29, 2009

Breaking Crisis Alert

If you live in Baghdad or Mogadishu or Kabul, it must take a supreme effort of will to get up every morning. After all, there's likely to be a bombed out storefront on your block, you can't go to get a quart of milk without the threat of death and you never know for sure if the car that stops in front of you is waiting for a goat to cross the street or waiting to blow up. I think most would agree that describing those environments as being in crisis is a fair use of the word.

After all, one of its definitions is "a time of extreme trouble or danger." But the word also has a another meaning: "a crucial stage or turning point in the course of anything." In that vein, you might also use it in describing the current health care debate, which seems to be careening out of control. Of course, whether all the heat and noise actually signals an actual inflection point, or merely a case of the extremely squeaky wheel clamoring for grease remains to be seen.

In any case, when someone describes something as a "crisis," you tend to sit up and take notice. That's why the cable news channels love the word. If you have them on as background during the day, you tend to tune out. But when they suddenly play that trumpet fanfare, start the swirling graphics and the basso profundo voice says "Housing in Crisis," you at least look up from your tuna salad sandwich.

Perhaps that's helps to explain why everything is "Crisis Update," "Breaking News" or "News Alert." After all, if everything is going along quietly, there's little need to turn on the set. But history has shown that viewership jumps on all networks when something is happening, be it a disputed election, a natural disaster or a celebrity happening. That ‘s why CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are praying that the ghost of Michael Jackson will be forced into a runoff for the governorship of California during an earthquake. I mean, a network can hope, can't it?

And it's not just the regular news outlets that use this approach. If you randomly flip to The Weather Channel, you'll likely tune in in the middle of a normal forecast, one which gives you the lowdown on the clouds, rain and sun. You get the info you want, then start to think about watching a rerun of "The Simpsons." But if you don't get to the clicker fast enough, it doesn't take long for you them to try and grab you by the throat.

"Bum bum bum bummmm!" goes the track, as the graphic explodes on the screen: "Storm Alert!" Turns out that somewhere over Kansas there's a possibility that maybe perhaps conditions for a tornado might theoretically be coming together. No worries, you say, you live in Jersey. But using the "alert" approach makes you think twice. After all, as Dave Barry points out, as the plane is going down, you'd hate to be the guy that everyone is laughing at because they have their life vests on and you didn't pay attention during the stewardess's demonstration.

You see the same thing on CNBC with the world of business. Not that you have two nickels to run together, but does the fact that there's a "Crisis in T-Bill Futures" make you want to jump off the couch run to the nearest ATM to... what? Take out some T Bill futures? Or when ESPN flashes "Breaking NEWS!!!" on the screen, does the report that "Manny Ramirez has failed a drug test and has been suspended 50 games" make you drop what you're doing and put off your dinner plans, the better to stay by the tube and learn the dosages?

Turns out that an alert can not only garner you audience, but get you off the hook. In an interview on Fox News, host Trace Gallagher was unable to knock Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow off her talking points regarding her support for the Cash for Clunkers program. So he cut off the interview by pulling out the big gun: "I'm sorry, Senator, we've got breaking news coming in, thank you for your time." He then breathlessly relayed the reason for the interruption: "Just in... behind the scenes at the most anticipated week on television: Shark
Week on the Discovery Channel!"

Breaking news or broken news? If everything is a crisis, then it stands to reason that nothing is. It's like the boy who cried wolf, and everyone ignored him when there really was a reason to pay attention. Or with apologies to Shakespeare, the fault, dear networks, lies not in your stars, but in yourselves.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes to flip between Fox and MSNBC to see who is closer to the fringe. His column appears regularly in The record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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