Circuit Breakers

How the example of Wall Street and the Fed could help save the press from itself


In his book The Price of Glory the historian Alistair Horne presents a sobering narrative of the ten-month Battle of Verdun, during World War I. In February of 1916 the fortress of Douaumont stood intact, a massive polygonal bastion, its concrete and earthen shell imposingly thick. By December, after unremitting bombardment, the shape of the fortress could scarcely be discerned. For miles around, the terrain had been churned into a porridge. Some 80,000 shells exploded in a single piece of ground, 500 yards by 1,000 yards. Then there was the rain. "The battlefield swiftly became a morass of mud, in which reinforcements stumbling lost at night were sucked down and drowned as in a quicksand."

I find myself thinking about that landscape whenever the American press gets drawn into one of its periodic bouts of pointless saturation coverage. The anthrax problem last fall was real, and had tragic consequences; it demanded good reporting. But the coverage quickly took on a lurid and hysterical cast, and became all but inescapable. A year ago, all summer long, the news was consumed by the story of Congressman Gary Condit and the missing intern Chandra Levy. This past spring it was consumed by the story of Andrea Yates, who had drowned her five small children, and was standing trial in Texas. (Her husband, Rusty, spent part of the day of the sentencing as a commentator on television programs with Larry King and Katie Couric.) The timeline of our recent national life is regularly punctuated by episodes of this kind: Elian Gonzalez. Viagra. Monica Lewinsky. Y2K. O. J. Princess Diana. JonBenet Ramsey. Heidi Fleiss. Tonya Harding. The Michael Skakel trial is over, but just ahead lies the legal trifecta of Zacarias Moussaoui, Robert Blake, and the thwarted shoe bomber Richard C. Reid.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Sage, Ink: "The Media Food Chain" (July 1, 1998)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

The trajectory is familiar: A story breaks. It works its way down (or up) the journalistic food chain, touching every link: the cable news programs, the talk shows, the exploitation shows, the tabloids, the Web sites, the comedians. The story settles in, like a weather inversion. Even sensible people inside the news business seem powerless to escape, caught up like everyone else by the demand for revelations and interviews, for scoops and "gets." Then, after a time, the story begins to fade, and a period of recrimination and self-loathing sets in. Remember the scene where the werewolf wakes up, normal again, and slowly realizes that it has been another bad night?

One analogue of the situation that news outlets find themselves in is the stock market crash of October 19, 1987. On that day, Black Monday, the market dropped 508 points, losing more than 22 percent of its value. To a considerable degree, some analysts later argued, the downward spiral was steepened by "program trading," which sends signals to buy or sell based on sophisticated algorithms. On October 19, as the market began to fall, the algorithms precipitated the selling off of large blocks of stock before the losses became even greater, thereby causing the collapse to accelerate. In the aftermath of the crash the government instituted "circuit breakers" to interrupt trading temporarily in the event of sudden heavy losses. Today trading stops for half an hour if the Dow falls 350 points from the previous day's close, and for one hour if it falls 500 points.

Circuit breakers would be useful to have when the news spins out of control—when a single story crosses some threshold of tolerance. What that threshold might be is open to debate. The tripwire could be the moment when the contract is inked for the first "instant book." Or the moment when the face of an individual in the story turns up on a Halloween mask sold in stores. It could be when the story gets its own theme music (or at least a theme chord), or when some previously unknown expert makes his twentieth appearance on a national news program. It could be when a cable-TV channel is created to cover nothing but this story twenty-four hours a day, or whenever the "crawls" scroll through fifty loops across the bottom of the screen without a change of subject.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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