One of the legacies of the O.J. Simpson saga was the discovery that a TV news division could garner huge ratings with blanket coverage of a Really Big Story, or RBS. (“Really Big Story” being a journalistic term meaning a story deemed capable of garnering huge ratings with blanket coverage). The RBS lesson has been adopted with a vengeance by the 24-hour cable news networks, and it continues to be an effective ratings tool.
However, the problem with relying on an RBS for elevated ratings is, what happens when there’s no story deserving of that status? The answer is simple: you just decree that something is an RBS, and you cover it with ferocity until the next RBS comes along.
Of course, some stories actually merit extensive coverage, among them the recent horror at Virginia Tech and the 2001 terrorist attacks. When those kinds of legitimate stories happen, they tend to knock the ersatz ones off the radar screen, most likely never to return. When I sat, stunned, with my wife watching the second jetliner slam into the World Trade Center, I remember saying two things two her. First, I said our lives would never be the same, and, second, we would probably never hear the name Gary Condit again. (Condit was the RBS prior to 9/11. Does anyone know the status of that story?)
I thought of this phenomenon when the latest copy of Newsweek arrived in the mail. It was printed too early to be able to feature the Virginia Tech story on the cover. Instead, there was Don Imus, the most recent media-driven RBS, and it felt as dated as if I were picking up a 1942 copy of The Saturday Evening Post. That’s the trouble with a fake RBS; there’s no shelf life. When it’s hot, it’s hot; when it’s not, it’s really not. (Though, in the case of Imus, his hiring by another media outlet could generate another round of 24-hour coverage.)
In a way, the phony RBS is a comfort. It means there’s nothing terrible enough happening in the world to interrupt the saturation coverage of the missing girl in the Caribbean or the DNA tests on the offspring of dead celebrities. The downside, though, is much worse. Elevating a relatively minor story to RBS status removes all perspective and diminishes the import of stories that really deserve to be examined at length. It reduces news coverage to nothing more than an ongoing reality show; a circus where the center ring must always be filled, even if the acts are unworthy of the showcase.
It forces otherwise capable journalists to try to sell us on the validity of their coverage, even though they have to know better. It has allowed networks to superimpose the words “Breaking News” over a story that is not breaking, or perhaps not even news. It’s a charade played by those who present the news and those of us who watch it. That’s why it was excruciatingly jarring to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer as he recently stood, looking somber, in his “Situation Room”, only to have fellow anchor Jack Cafferty ask, “Well, Wolf, is Anna Nicole still dead?” For a moment, at least, the jig was up.
There will be another Really Big Story soon. For the sake of our world, let’s hope it’s the manufactured type. For the sake of journalism, let’s hope it’s not.