TV news’ sound and fury signifies less and less information

It has been a stressful, tragic couple of weeks for national breaking news.

So a lot of us, me included, have spent an unusual amount of time watching network television news, hungering for updates. And this just in: Man, has it gotten terrible.

I have to admit: I rarely watch the cable networks anymore, and I can’t remember the last time I watched a nightly commercial network newscast.

Sure, this makes me sound like a homer, but I rely on NPR for my broadcast diet of reports from across the nation and the world. Let me then layer in the New York Times, my Twitter feed, and a regular dose of a few trusted correspondents, like Dick Polman on NewsWorks, James Suroweicki in the New Yorker, and Andrew Sullivan’s ever-great blog, and I’m good.

In one way, and probably in no other, it occurs to me that I’m like the Millenial generation to which my kids belong: I get my main sense of what the news networks are up to by watching Jon Stewart eviscerate them every weeknight on “The Daily Show.”

Stewart and his staff are brilliant media critics, but I assumed they were giving me a satirically skewed view of how inane cable news has become.

Now, after Boston and West, Texas, and other recent horrors, I regret to report that things on cable have become almost as bad as Stewart says they are.

Television used to have it all over my old medium of print in terms of reporting breaking news. Immediacy plus pictures lent both urgency and credibility.

I’m far from the first to observe this in recent days, but the Twitter-driven mania to be continuously ON has sent television news completely off the rails.

Reporting well still means not just gathering up random reports, but also sifting them, distilling them, testing them against probability and known facts, before delivering them to an audience. The great broadcast reporters could do that swiftly and, it seems, continuously during a breaking news crisis.

But, however timely the reporting seemed, it allowed for time to digest, to make sense of the raw data of experience.

Now, no longer. A police car zooming past a camera; a dog barking in the distance – any and all sensory data now seems to be treated as a newsbreak worthy of being conveyed breathlessly to the audience. In the absence of any actual confirmed news, even a dog’s bark is now grist for endless, and idiotic, stream of consciousness speculation masquerading as journalism.

Fine reporting has, and continues to be done, on the Boston bombings. Sadly, less attention is going to the equally significant factory explosion in Texas.

But little of this reporting has been done by those condemned endlessly to vamp and pose on camera, with no break taken for the actual work of journalism.

Uncle Walter, it’s good you never lived to see the day

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