In analyzing network coverage of the Sandy Hook murders, I had no intention of doing a series of articles on television news, but the opportunity to deconstruct the overall grand illusion was compelling.
A number of articles later, I want to discuss yet another sleight-of-hand trick. The myth of “coverage.”
It’s familiar to every viewer. Scott Pelley, in seamless fashion, might say, “Our top story tonight, the widening conflict in Syria. For the latest on the Assad government crackdown, our coverage begins with Clarissa Ward in Damascus…” .
Clarissa Ward has entered the country secretly, posing as a tourist. She carries a small camera. In interviews with rebels, she discovers that a) there is a conflict, b) people are being arrested c) there is a funeral for a person who was killed by government soldiers, d) defiance among the citizenry is growing.
In other words, she tells us almost nothing.
But CBS is imparting the impression that her report is important. After all, it’s not just anchor Scott Pelley in the studio. It’s a journalist in the field, up close and personal. It’s coverage.
Here are a few of the many things we don’t learn from either Pelley or Ward. Who is behind the rebellion in Syria? What is their real goal? What covert role is the US playing? Why are there al Qaeda personnel there?
But who cares? We have coverage. A key hole view. It’s wonderful. It’s exciting for two minutes. If we’re already brainwashed.
Coverage in television means you have the money, crew, resources, and stand-up reporters you can send out into the field. That’s all it means. It has nothing to do with information.
CNN made its reputation by coverage, from one end of the planet to the other. Yet, what did we really learn in all those years? We learned that, by straining to the point of hernia, a cable network could present news non-stop, 24/7.
The trick of coverage is the smooth transition from anchor in the studio to reporter in the field. The reporter is standing in front of something that vaguely resembles or represents what we imagine the locale contains. A large squat government building, a tower, a marketplace, a river, a skyline.
At some point during the meaningless report, the screen splits and we see both the anchor and the reporter. This yields the impression of two concerned professionals discussing something significant.
Then we’re back to the reporter in the field filling up the whole screen.
The anchor closes with a question or two.
“Denise, have you seen any tanks in the area?”
“No Wolf, not in the last hour. But we have reports from last night of shelling in the village.”