Apologies for the extended break from posting and thanks for continuing to read the site in my absence. I took the last couple of weeks off while G and I got married. However, there’s been no shortage of stories about TV in America since we went away so don’t expect a quiet first day of term. We resume with a post on the TV coverage of the maelstrom of tragic events that devastated the USA over the past seven days:
It’s been a shitty week in America. Last Monday bombs went off at the Boston marathon killing 3 people and injuring over 150 more. On Wednesday, the first round of gun control reform legislation tanked in the Senate. On Wednesday night, an explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas killed 14, injured around 200 and destroyed 50 homes. By Friday, Boston was in a state of lockdown as armoured tank police vehicles searched the city streets for the outstanding bomber, Dzokhar Tsarnev, who had escaped custody following a battle the previous night with police that killed brother and collaborator Tamerlan.
How did TV cover the seven-day shitstorm? Well, while a number of entertainment shows such as Live with Kelly and Michael and Conan expressed compunctions about peddling amusement in the wake of the Boston bombings, news programmes seemed to have no obvious qualms about this. News reporters constantly reminded viewers how exciting the events unfolding in Boston were, as if the city had been collectively entered in a catch-the-terrorist role play game. ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer at one point thanked a reporter for her ‘thrilling’ coverage of the aftermath like she was Ben Affleck at an Argo press conference.
On Tuesday, CNN pulled a CNN and falsely reported that an arrest had been made in connection with the bombings despite official denials. The cable news network had been under fire in recent weeks for its misreporting of the Steubenville rape case and now seems to have moved on from doubting moral and legal verdicts to blindly ignoring empirical fact. Later in the week, while covering the hunt for Dzokhar Tsarnev, CNN reporters seemed to suggest that the lockdown was voluntary, ignoring the tanks patrolling Boston neighbourhoods which gently hinted to residents that it was probably wasn’t a park day.
To give them their due, CNN were once again the lone voice of reason when it came to the reporting of gun control following Wednesday’s senate debacle. I’m talking of course about Piers Morgan, who has repeatedly slammed President Obama’s inability to mobilise the gun control lobby and exposed the NRA’s hold over senate voting, and was entirely vindicated this week. To offer some cultural perspective, Piers Morgan is known in Britain for being a dick. Yet in the bizarro world of American TV news, his smug, unremitting self-righteousness somehow twists its way into being the perfect conduit of outrage.
Just when it seemed as if it could get no worse for the USA, it did, and the TV coverage followed the downhill gradient. After the Texas fertiliser plant exploded, news channels once again oohed and aahed over the spectacle and somehow managed to disproportionally report an already heinous disaster as an apocalyptic catastrophe. Fox’s ‘Breaking News’ coverage sat back and admired the epic visuals of nuclear mushroom cloud-like smoke and giant soaring fireballs in viewers’ photos and videos, offering aesthetic judgement and firework-display awe rather than the information necessary to understand the localised explosion that these images related to.
But nothing could take screen time away from Boston last week. On Thursday, the networks’ morning line-up was pulled for coverage of a memorial ceremony for the victims of the marathon bombings in which Obama gave a eulogy. It was the kind of heartrending, preacher-style oratory that made the president look powerful again instead of the lame duck frontman (think Bez with missile privileges) this week’s vote confirmed he was. I’m sure Obama’s speechwriters were grateful events took place in such a culturally and historically prominent city and not some backwater small-town where the annual highlight is a vegetable festival.
TV newspeople set up camp on the streets of Boston and no straight-to-air programme could go without some sort of mention of Monday’s bombings. Given that the bombings were more exceptional and containable and less devastating in terms of lives and infrastructure destroyed than the explosion in Texas, why did it get so much more air time? Well, American TV is a largely local animal and the marathon was attended by runners from all over America, making it relevant to a larger number of regional news programmes. Plus, more people on TV seem to come from Boston than West, Texas.
But the main difference is in the news story that results. Texas was an instantaneous disaster that left nothing for follow-up coverage. It exposed systematic failures at a federal and local level. Boston was the explosion that kept on exploding, first the hunt for the bombers, then the capture, then the escape, then the re-capture. And law-and-order eventually triumphed. It couldn’t have played better if it were an episode of Dragnet and intrigue was maintained across the week like a soap opera. Interest in West, Texas dwindled faster than in Smash weand ended up looking like a programme cancelled mid-season.