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"Breaking News" is Broken

(CBS)
"Breaking News" is broken.

When exactly did it happen? For me, it was back during the case of the DC Sniper Story. We'd had a number of murders around the beltway, and the story was a mainstay of the cable networks. Gripping drama, particularly for those of us for whom a trip to the gas station had become a stressful occasion. (The sniper liked to gun down people at filling stations, near highway ramps for quick getaways.)

One rainy morning during the drama, a cable network announced they were about to report "Breaking News" on the sniper story. I pinwheeled in my desk and stared at the TV screen. Had they caught him?, I hoped. Had another person been shot?, I dreaded.

The news? The sniper had made a phone call from a pay phone off I-95. Police were running to the scene to investigate the phone. Cameras were sent, reporters did stand-ups in front of the phone. Breathless speculation filled the airwaves about 'the meaning of the call.'

The "Breaking News" was a pay phone in Fredericksburg, Virginia. (No word on whether Larry King's producers sought an interview with it.)

Fast forward to just last week, where I was watching a cable newscast reporting "Breaking News" about Atlanta Falcon quarterback Michael Vick's federal indictment. And only 24 hours after the news had been announced!

Along those lines, in today's Washington Post, the ever-cheeky and all-around good guy Paul Farhi writes a piece called "How Fresh Is Your News?"

This just in! There's no more news on TV, at least not on the cable news networks. Plain old news apparently just isn't good enough anymore, so TV news stories have been getting new and improved names….

Sometimes a story is a "News Alert." Sometimes it's a "Bulletin." And sometimes the banner reads, "New Developments" (although if there are new developments in a "Developing Story," shouldn't it really say "Developing Developing Story"?).

It's fun and all, but mostly dispiriting. For want of an extra ratings point here or there and in order to make us slap down our remote controls, the cable newscasts – with their "This Just In!" and "Paris Speaks!" hyperbole – are inflating headlines and making Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's jobs incredibly easy.

When I grew up, "Breaking News" was shorthand for a few things:

  • The president has been shot.
  • The space shuttle has exploded.
  • Communism is dead. Check out the party at the Berlin Wall!

    It doesn't say much for today's media – or, to a lesser degree, us viewers – that all it takes for a story to get the full-on Reagan/Challenger treatment is for a starlet to blow a .12 on a breathalyzer.