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.
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.