I spent part of last week at a family resort in the Poconos — an old-school place, with a dining hall and shuffleboard and horseshoe tournaments — and on Tuesday morning, some dreadful news circulated around the swimming pool. At the local Shop-Rite, where someone had gone for provisions, everyone was talking about how George W. Bush had died. Had a massive heart attack while sleeping. Was discovered by his wife.
I turned to my iPhone, but couldn’t get a signal. So I went into the main lodge and flipped through cable news, expecting retrospectives and tributes and details. All I found were anchors discussing Tom Cruise’s divorce and watching tape of a judge in West Virginia, yelling at a litigant. Bush, it was clear, was alive and well.
“But how could that be?” someone beside me said. A woman at the resort had confirmed the death, by Googling “George Bush dies.” She had found the details on Yelp! — which, I pointed out, is not a journalistic outlet, but a website where people post their own restaurant reviews.
This speaks, to be sure, to a problem of media literacy: Not everyone seems to know that, in the case of cataclysmic news, the details would be everywhere, instantly — and that, on the flip side, you can confirm any wackadoodle idea, if you dig deep enough in a Google search.
But this was also a problem with the media itself, a sign that our credibility is at an all-time low. How is it that, at the mention of big news, people’s first instinct would be to turn not to a trusted media outlet but to Google?
We’ve reached a point where we have both too much information and not enough of it — and where the audience for news is clearly jaded. In May, the ratings for cable news networks were at their lowest points since 2008, and, in the case of CNN, their lowest ever. News operations create their own bad news: CNN and Fox News flubbed their early reporting on the Supreme Court’s health care ruling. NBC sentenced Ann Curry to public humiliation for the dubious sin of failing to enjoy herself in cooking segments.
We even have a new HBO show about the broken news: “The Newsroom,” from “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, which just got renewed for a second season. It’s a high-minded fairy tale about a cable news anchor who tries to put on a serious news show, chiefly by ignoring interesting details and giving self-righteous speeches on the air. Each week, to demonstrate its superiority, the show presents idealized news reports for events that have actually happened.
Sorkin can be an insightful writer, but here, he gets the diagnosis wrong. The problem with civic life isn’t that the public is interested in Tom Cruise (whose divorce is interesting, because it’s just an extreme version of the marriage-collides-with-religion stories that play out in many families). The problem isn’t that we ask news anchors to do fluff stories sometimes.
No, the problem is that we have too much news. The secret to those 1960s-era glory days of broadcast news wasn’t so much that we had a group of trusted older men, delivering information from on high. The trick was that they delivered that news in a half-hour every day. Information had to be curated and presented thoughtfully. Reporting staffs had the time and relative leisure to get it right.
That’s much harder to do when people expect the news to be available instantly, and for constant consumption. This is how tiny stories get blown out of proportion — and how big stories get undercovered. If your employees have to produce 12 to 24 hours of television every day, they can’t do enough in-depth reporting to actually advance the stories. What passes for news instead is endless circular arguments and anchors who demonize other news outlets. People lose trust and tune out.
And if they truly stop expecting to find news on the news, where will they get their information? In the Poconos, I found one answer, as I tried to reproduce the “George Bush died” Google search. Fourth on the Google list, beneath a Wikipedia page and two old stories about the death of a Bush impersonator, was a “news in brief” item titled “Bush Dies Peacefully In His Sleep.” It contained every detail of the Shop-Rite rumor, plus a quote from a family doctor: “It was as though he knew it was his time to go.”
The date was Jan. 20, 2009 — Barack Obama’s inauguration day. The source was The Onion.