When is Bad News Good News?

commentary by John McManus



When you  awoke Tuesday morning, September 11, to news of the terrible events in Manhattan and Arlington, did you click on your TV? 


Did you keep it on at home or work throughout the day watching the unbelievable video of an airliner punching through the World Trade Center and the collapse of those familiar twin towers?


Could you turn away? I couldn’t. I couldn’t concentrate on work that suddenly seemed so trivial.


Humans have a deep urge to witness such powerful events. Reading about them 24 hours later won’t do. We yearn to feel connected to the events and to each other as they happen. Danger obliterates our usual illusion¾that we don’t need each other.      


At times like this we recognize how utterly we depend on television journalism. It becomes society’s most important senses--our eyes and ears. It enables something to happen that is relatively new--for hundreds of millions of people to see and hear a distant event at the same time. That astonishing power conveys commensurate responsibility.


In this crisis, their performance, though jingoistic, generally merits praise. For once the shareholders were shown the back seat and public interest got a chance to drive the news.


I’m not talking about the absence of commercials, but scrapping the incessant teases of upcoming stories, the scripted happy talk, the promotional stories about “Survivor” or “E.R.”, the marketing of isolated incidents of grief, the pursuit of emotional rather than informative quotes, the shunning of issues for simple events. The entire ethos of newsrooms flipped from making money to making sense.


It seems to take bad news to bring out the best in broadcast journalism.


But watch! Will the vestments of moral responsibility quickly be folded in mothballs, and most newscasts once again apply the greasepaint of performance?


That would be a shame. As we enter this new and much more dangerous age, the public needs news that informs, not a return to info-tainment.