Thrust onto the stage

Dean Barnett
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Posted: Apr 21, 2007 12:00 AM
Thrust onto the stage

Three short years ago before I started blogging, literally no one knew who I was outside of my family. And even my cousins would sometimes forget my name. And yet on Monday, I found myself part of “big media” covering the tragedy at Virginia Tech while sitting in for Hugh Hewitt on Hugh’s radio show. While I still have the mentality of an outsider, I was very much on the inside of the coverage of the Virginia Tech story as I reported it to millions of listeners. Oh, the things I saw. And learned.

Monday was the first time I had the privilege of pinch-hitting for Hugh. I had spent the weekend arranging an eclectic and interesting roster of guests, ranging from Roger L. Simon to Bill Kristol to a big rock star who is actually highly and movingly patriotic. (I’m withholding his name so when he does appear on the show it will still be an exciting surprise.) By Monday afternoon, all that was out the window.

But not everyone understands why it had to go out the window and why everyone in the media spent days talking about the Virginia Tech massacre and little else. Until I was part of the story Monday, I really didn’t appreciate how these things work. Now I do. Or at least I think I do.

WHAT HAPPENED AT VIRGINIA TECH WAS a huge story and a national day of trauma. We had to devote our broadcast to it because that’s what people wanted to talk about. What’s more talking, about anything else would have been disrespectful. Monday was obviously not an appropriate day for “business as usual” in the media.

And there’s another side to things. People, a.k.a. listeners, wanted to hear about what happened at Virginia Tech and they wanted to talk about it. As a news talk show, we had to go where the interest was. Virginia Tech was where the interest and news was on Monday.

But still, some people might wonder why Fox News and CNN were non-stop Virginia Tech all the time most of the week, and neglected most everything else including a horrific bombing in Baghdad that took well over 100 lives. There’s actually a simple explanation for this.

If you’re reading this column, you’re by definition a high-end consumer of news. You like news, and you acquire a lot of it. Chances are you read blogs for several hours a week, and Fox or CNN provides the background music to your life.

These habits make you an outlier. Don’t take offense – I mean that in a good way. Lord knows we’re the same. But most people spend a fraction of the time devouring the news that we do. Most of the country has never heard of Harry Reid. For us, he’s been an annoying fixture in our lives since 2002.

Every now and then, a story breaks through the fog and grabs the attention of the entire country. The Virginia Tech massacre, deservedly so, was such a story. It was the largest mass killing in American history next to 9/11. It also resonated with the American public since virtually every American knows a college student. So people who don’t normally have much interest in the news became news consumers this week.

When you consume your news, you gobble. The less gluttonous news consumers who showed up this week nibble. As news providers, we had to deal with that reality. Hugh’s show runs for three hours. Normally it’s a highly entertaining and diverse three hours with a wealth of different guests popping in. On Monday, we had to run the show cognizant of the reality that many of the listeners would be stopping by only to learn details about what happened at Virginia Tech and get some analysis. They would get what they wanted, but new listeners would soon come by expecting the same thing. So the show, to meet the audience’s expectations and to be topical, had to necessarily be repetitive.

The news networks faced the same situation but, on a much larger scale. People were visiting CNN and Fox (and maybe even MSNBC) this week who seldom watch the news. To serve their customers’ wants and needs, the networks had to keep talking about and refreshing the Virginia Tech story.

MONDAY WAS THE FIRST TIME I WAS EVER IN SUCH A SITUATION, actually reporting terrible news over the airwaves. It was a somewhat daunting responsibility and a strange sort of honor to be talking to so many Americans at the moment of a national trauma. I keenly felt the obligation to carry out my duties professionally, competently and responsibly. I hope I acquitted myself well, and I know I tried my best to bring a calm and sane perspective to what for many Americans was an emotional and difficult day.

By the end of the week, things were back to normal for both me and the big media. I had returned to blogging at Hugh’s website, and NBC had returned to chasing ratings by running the killer Cho manifesto, heedless of the harm that its actions might cause.

In my moment in big media, I learned some things about the way the media operates that I previously didn’t know and that I don’t think were particularly obvious. Other aspects of big media, like the way some of its members apparently lack a conscience, will remain a mystery to me for a bit longer.