It's funny, here in Washington where the sniper's bullets are flying and people are serpentining their way into the Starbucks, one of the chief complaints is that the media is covering the murder spree too much. Even though everyone here is talking about how scary and terrible it is, we're also talking about how sick we are of hearing about it 24/7 on television, particularly cable news. It may seem counterintuitive, but this is actually a perfect reflection of how self-absorbed Washington is.
As a part-time media critic and a full-time conservative hurler of beer cans at the TV, I rarely come to the defense of the television news business (although CNN's decision to sign me up as a commentator was brilliance on stilts). But when it comes to the sniper story, I think networks have it about right.
Here's what my neighbors tend not to understand: Most Americans don't watch cable news at all. Period. This comes as a shock to many in Washington and New York who think that since everyone they know watches cable news gabfests, then everybody everywhere must be watching too. But we political news junkies are strange creatures. I myself listen to C-Span on my Walkman for Pete's sake. And, by Washington standards, I'm a pretty cool guy. No, seriously, I am.
"The O'Reilly Factor" remains -astonishingly, if you ask me -the top ranked cable yak show, averaging 1.92 million viewers per night, and "Larry King Live" comes in second with 1.4 million. Still, Fox and CNN average around half a million viewers per day, according to Nielsen Media Research (629,000 for Fox and 518,000 for CNN in the third quarter of 2002).
Meanwhile, statistically speaking, MSNBC's ratings are so low -less than a quarter of a million people per day or about a third of a single typical congressional district -it's entirely possible that the whole network could run a test pattern and most of America would never know it for days or even months.
Anyway, to make things easier, let's just say that at a given moment of the day, about 1 million people are normally watching one of the three cable news networks. Well, at the time I wrote this column there were 288,336,404 Americans, according to the Census Bureaus population clock. So, counting babies and small children, that means that at any given moment 287,336,404 Americans are not watching cable news.
Now, imagine if you had any other product in the world -dog food, cars, pet rocks, whatever -and 287 million people out of a total market of 288 million people weren't buying it as much as you knew they could or should. Any businessman with a pulse would say we need to attract those customers.
And that's precisely what these networks do when they go into "media overkill mode" -a point defined by the explosion of news stories worrying about, you guessed it, media overkill.
Most Americans aren't news junkies, let alone political junkies. Normal Americans mainly turn to CNN or Fox when Something Big is happening -like the Gulf War, Sept. 11 or a presidential election -or when something relatively trivial but very interesting to lots of folks is happening, like when children fall down wells, whales get trapped in ice or stupid movie stars get married or divorced or replaced on some sitcom. And when that sort of thing is going on, normal people turn on the all-news channels and all they want to see is the news they're looking for.
This breeds resentment among news junkies who believe the whole world should care about politics as much as we do. Sports junkies wouldn't tolerate having ESPN's regular coverage of the World Series interrupted for round-the-clock coverage of the DC sniper, but politics
junkies have to put up with that sort of thing all the time.
Think of how grumpy the regulars at the neighborhood bar sometimes get when the Super Bowl fans show up and take the place over. "But we're here all the time," they might say to bar owner. To which he'll reply, "Yeah, but I don't get crowds like this very often." The same dynamic is going on in cable news, which is getting its highest viewership of the year.
Now I don't think the nets are always right when they go into media overkill mode. The coverage of Princess Di's death or the Columbine funerals was, in my mind, disgustingly exploitative without serving any news function. But the coverage of the sniper isn't that, despite its sometimes obvious excesses. This story is news, breaking news -and that is what news organizations are supposed to be about.