Circuit Breakers

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

By Cullen Murphy

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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.

Whatever the threshold, the response would be instantaneous. Fox, CNN, and MSNBC would go black for half a day. If saturation coverage persisted elsewhere, the blackout would be extended to the three networks, and to the front pages of the next morning's newspapers. To safeguard the nation's fundamental right to know, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer would always be allowed to broadcast, although in extreme circumstances even this sober program might require dampening. One possibility would be to have the entire show presented by Senator Joseph Lieberman.

Circuit breakers, of course, represent an emergency response—not effective long-term management. For that we need the news-gathering equivalent of the Federal Reserve Board. One reason some news stories dominate the nation's attention is sheer lack of competition: to use the language of economics, there is a shortage of supply. Too many reporters are chasing too little news. Increase the supply, and the dynamic changes: no sooner does some new story come along than the old story starts to fade.

A centralized national "news bank"—a Disclosure Reserve Board—could keep watch over the news supply and help the country to avoid periods of either serious shortage or dangerous excess. The governors of the board would include representatives from the major national and regional newspapers, the three newsmagazines, the three network news programs, the cable news networks, and selected radio outlets. For obvious practical reasons they would also have to include representatives from The National Enquirer, Hard Copy, Jerry Springer, the Drudge Report, and possibly The Onion. As the price of a seat on the board, each governor would "deposit" a half dozen major news stories into the central news bank—stories their organizations had yet to break and would agree to sit on until moments of national need. Thus The Washington Post might ante up with "DEEP THROAT IDENTITY AT LAST CONFIRMED." The National Enquirer might offer "GORE LOVE CHILD EYES TENN. RUN" and "BRITNEY TO ENTER CALCUTTA CONVENT." Such contributions would represent only modest hardship: every news organization is holding stories it is nervous about breaking anyway.

In moments of mounting crisis—for instance, when round-the-clock coverage of the Robert Blake trial enters its seventeenth week—the Disclosure Reserve Board would intervene with an emergency stimulus package. Suddenly the Blake trial would be swept off the front page, consigned to a squib in News Briefs by "CLINTON WEIGHED MIDNIGHT SIRHAN PARDON" or "ENRON PROBE CITES OSAMA LINK" or "FOURTH FATIMA SECRET FINGERS O.J." Under ordinary circumstances news organizations might be wary of allegations that remained inadequately sourced, but the federal government could step in with indemnification against adverse legal consequences—much as it agreed, back in the 1950s, to indemnify the nuclear-power industry in order to make its start-up possible.

Some might look askance at the idea of a Disclosure Reserve Board, for putting so much power over the news into the hands of a self-appointed elite. (Others would reply, What else is new?) Regulation of some kind is certainly long overdue, and a Disclosure Reserve Board at least works with the existing system.

But if the proposed reforms fall short we may need to consider an entirely different approach. One possibility would be a radical version of a Department of Agriculture program—the government would pay news producers, in effect, not to plant certain kinds of crops. Alternatively, Washington could buy up the entire production of certain kinds of news, and then stockpile it, as the government does with vast quantities of the nation's milk and cheese. Indeed, we should think seriously about sending some of this stockpile to places like Afghanistan and the Balkans, which have long been major exporters of hard news but whose consumerist tastes at home remain woefully underdeveloped.

England, with its advanced tabloid industry, would almost certainly join us in this endeavor—once again becoming the only ally we can really count on.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/09/circuit-breakers/302576/