Television’s dead air

If your eyes do not roll back in your head when reading the words “Malaysia Airlines Flight 370” in my first sentence, then you have obviously not been watching cable news.

Since the mysterious disappearance of the Boeing 777 (which we now all call a triple-7) and its 239 passengers and crew members last month, the news coverage has been borderline insane. With hardly any news to report — certainly none that merits round-the-clock coverage — the event has epitomized the kind of ratings-driven obsessiveness that now characterizes cable network news.

One media expert counted 256 out of 271 broadcast minutes on CNN during one stretch March 12 were devoted to flight 370. And it has worked, with network viewership jumping 84 percent.

All of this has taken place while Russian soldiers amass on Ukraine’s border, Afghans prepare to vote, Middle East peace talks near the breaking point and a new United Nations report on climate change makes for scary reading. These get short shrift, and even the first meeting of the U.S. president and Pope Francis attracted at best cursory coverage on CNN, shifting back to even more Flight 370 coverage as soon as it was seemly.

Yet coverage does not equate with news value. And what passes for video journalism is increasingly an ersatz confection of conjecture, mind-numbing video and a Hollywood Squares ensemble of talking heads. The audience, which apparently has not grown more intelligent with all of this coverage, gets to weigh in with questions about the Bermuda Triangles or divine intervention that are answered with a straight face as if the speculation were oracular rather than just plain nuts.

If there is anything more mind-numbing than searchers scanning hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, it is the reporting on searchers scanning that ocean.

And for all this coverage, what we know is very little. A plane makes a sharp deviation from its original flight plan and then disappears. No cell phone calls from survivors (that we know of). No claims of credit by hitherto unknown terrorist groups (that we know of). No evidence of the captain or the co-pilot or even a flight attendant being a part of some doomsday cult. Nothing.

Perhaps by the time you are reading this column, the wreckage will be found and the mystery on its way to an explanation, but for the moment, it has been a reminder of how big the world still is.

Once upon a time, ships wrecked, or were sunk by pirates, or taken over my mutineers, and no one may ever have found out why. It was dangerous to walk from one town to the next, much less sail on the ocean, and life was full of mystery. People disappeared and loved ones might never have an explanation. Life was nasty, brutish and short, and infinitely more mysterious as well.

Today, we rebel against the surveillance of the NSA and Google, yet we expect the world to be completely knowable. No matter what the puzzle, we expect technology to decode it and science to explain it. It irritates us, perhaps even frightens us, when that doesn’t happen. Yet the world still has her mysteries and not just in the dark ocean depths.

I wonder if the decline in a belief in a personal God has accompanied this modern expectation that life is knowable and predictable by man-made means. Today the greater mysteries of how we came to be and why, of a God who desires our love yet lets us choose our own path, of a universe so unbelievably complex and diverse it still defies comprehension are left to poets and philosophers while we park ourselves in our La-Z-Boy and see what’s on TV.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.