Wendy Davis and the Failure of the 24-Hour News Cycle

I didn’t go to E3 this year. I wasn’t even around to cover the event due to an incompatible vacation schedule—the task fell to my talented writers instead. I did, however, stick around for the first day and watch my Twitter feed as news trickled in from arriving journalists. The majority of it wasn’t too memorable: understandable complaints about flight delays, amusing pictures of friends and colleagues reunited.

But then something interesting happened: Carolyn Petit of Gamespot tweeted this picture:

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Dying Light is a “spiritual successor” (i.e. a buzzword meaning kinda-sorta sequel) to Techland’s mediocre zombie basher Dead Island.  It wasn’t the fact that Techland was developing another zombie-related game that caught my attention; instead, it was the tagline beneath the title: “Good Night Good Luck.” Carolyn captioned the picture, saying “I’m not too keen on Edward R. Murrow’s famous phrase being appropriated for a video game.”

I wasn’t either.

Edward Murrow was a journalist who became renowned for his live broadcasts of the Blitz and Buchenwald.  In 1953, Murrow, now the host of See it Now, a documentary series produced by CBS, focused on Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt. After McCarthy accused the journalist of being a communist, Murrow responded back with the televised equivalent of a knockout punch, an eloquent speech about the separation between dissent and disloyalty, and the importance of freedom:

[quote style=”1″]We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Good night, and good luck.[/quote]

Murrow has been one of my heroes since high school, and his dedication to initiating thoughtful conversations about topics—both major events and those that would go otherwise unnoticed—is one that embodies what CultureMass strives to be: a catalyst for meaningful conversations.

A couple of hours passed and I just accepted the situation for what it was: some marketing people at Warner Brothers thought it would be clever to appropriate a culturally significant phrase coined by a man famed for his anti-entertainment beliefs…for a game where you kill the undead. Powerless to do anything to change the subject—except shout about it into the dark, pitiless chasm that is the internet—I let it go.

Well, I thought I did.

I was reminded of Murrow in a big way June 25th, when Wendy Davis launched a 13-hour filibuster to block Texas Senate Bill Five, a bill that would modify abortion regulations in Texas. I watched snippets of the debate. Not on my television, of course, and not even on one of the major networks’ websites. Instead,  I was on Twitter. Silly, harmless, frivolous Twitter. People I followed began to tweet the stream, saying it was super important. I ignored the first couple of shares until nearly everyone on my feed began to share it, each link often accompanied by angry messages about body policing, and the hashtag #standwithwendy.

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Support for Davis wasn’t the only thing coming down the feed. There was outright anger at news networks neglecting an event that’s outcome would affect thousands of women in Texas and women’s rights in general.

 WD Tweet 4

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I flipped through the channels on the television behind me. The local news was talking about a missing child and then cut to a story about the local education system. Fox News and CNN weren’t reporting on it. I searched “Wendy Davis” online and found nothing about the filibuster, just a report about her office being firebombed back in September.  Thousands of people (close to 180,000 according to Mark Joyella) were tuning into this event through social networking because the 24 hour news cycle didn’t have enough room, amidst all of its stories on the Kardashians and blueberry muffins, for Wendy Davis or the women of Texas.

In my mind, there are two possibilities here. The first, more comforting possibility is that for the entirety of that 13-hour period reporters and cable news execs remained unaware of the filibuster. I find this unlikely because, well, it would mean that countless people whose jobs are to sniff out worthy stories and write them never picked up on the proceedings or the attention it was attracting. I call it the more comforting of the two because it involves a scenario in which decisions were not made.  A lack of coverage via negligence.

The other, much more likely scenario involves people in power looking at that story and deciding that it was not worth their viewers’ time, that filibusters are boring and that to bore viewers is bad for business. I do not believe that people, on the whole, would rather be informed than entertained, but I do believe that a preference to be entertained doesn’t mean that people don’t wish to be informed of events that are shaping the future of the country in which they live.

I sat there, reading those tweets, wondering about a filibuster’s lack of coverage, and Murrow drifted into my mind again. In 1958,  Murrow delivered  a powerful speech about how the need to entertain in broadcast news was hampering the television’s potential as an educational device:

[quote style=”1″]We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.[/quote]

It’s difficult to look at the decision to give airtime to blueberry muffins over the filibuster and not fear that Murrow’s prediction of televised news as a device to “insulate” has come to pass. However, the hope for fair coverage of  significant events that would otherwise be passed over lives on in the various,  and often maligned, forms of social networking.  This platform is problematic, for certain. After all, a tweet, like any statement, inadvertently conveys a bias or a political agenda. However, given viewers’ beliefs that television networks like CNN or Fox News promote their own political slants, this isn’t really that big of a problem. It is the viewer’s responsibility to sift through narratives, whether conservative, liberal, whatever, and analyze the event on his or her own terms.  The bigger issue at hand is how much can someone convey in 140 characters or in a Facebook link share? Not much. Certainly not enough, but the fact that someone, if they choose, can share three or four articles on a single issue, each article offering a different perspective, provides an advantage over their predecessor.

Television is a passive medium. It does not require or encourage us to do anything than sit and watch, and news networks ask from us nothing more than to watch what they believe is worthwhile news and the creations of their advertisers. Unfortunately, it has been apparent for some time, and is becoming even more so, that broadcast’s definition of “worthwhile” is very different from a large percentage of its possible viewership. I imagine that a large number of CNN and FOX’s viewers on the 25th, even those who prefer being entertained over being informed, would have appreciated coverage of the filibuster.

Luckily, there was another avenue for that information to reach its audience and it’s one that we should give due attention to as broadcast news continues to falter and disappoint.

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  • stuc2k

    Finally!