Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
The new news cycle is young. CNN has been around for a couple of decades but cable and the Internet serving as major news outlets is still working itself out, shaking out the kinks. Many are watching, prophesizing how the chips will land. News outlets themselves are happy to toss about popular phrases involving 24-hour news cycles, shorter attention spans, blogs, and the death of the voice-of-god anchor
. As if on cue, all three network news anchors died or retired last year to mark the end of network hegemony over the news cycle.
Instead of three voices reading the news, we have a much less finite number. We have gone from the three tenors, singing on the floor of a great arena, to everyone in the arena being micced, with songs, chants, and calls for "Freebird" starting anywhere from the floor to section 310 in the balcony.
For a story to take, to capture the attention of the avid news-following public, it needs many thousand voices telling it, so something decipherable can punch through. It need not start with a prominent voice, but it will carry farthest when a healthy mix sings its virtues: preferably some ideologues to keep the discussion animated; experts are always important, even for the most pedestrian of stories; participants to be interviewed; politicians to be rhetorical or, less cynically, offer leadership.
One could bemoan all those voices because, invariably, the great majority of them stem from nincompoops. (Oh, how the time flies when one is bemoaning about nincompoops.) But web logs and cable news
and 90ways have arrived. It is, most likely, just a change, neither good nor bad and one we will become accustomed to. We are, after all, still learning how to harmonize this new chorus of news sources, how to have a national discussion with so damn many people talking.
Naturally, both political parties love to steer the new news cycle. They've gotten much better at doing so, at controlling, feeding, and steering some of those voices into a chorus, at least for a day or two. The Bush Administration has been remarkably effective. In the summer of 2004, regardless of how one felt about the origin of the anti-Kerry swift boat ads
, the story showed sensational staying power in a news market so drenched it places an uber-premium on novelty.
Years ago, as the new news cycle was cresting over the horizon, I read a slim monograph entitled The President as Interpreter-in-Chief
by Mary Stuckey. It was, largely, tedious, but its titular point was a good one. The President has, especially since the dawn of radio and then television, played a great role in shaping the national story. Even with megaphone technology increasingly cheap and a glut in the soapbox market, the Pres is uniquely positioned to frame the events of American life.
But to some extent all politicians, with their public stage and mandate to tackle issues of import, have a bit of this storyteller in them. The accessibility of the new news cycle ought to allow them all to stir up choruses of their own. Just as the networks no longer lead the way on news coverage, the President will have to share his ability to whip up national sentiment. The blogs and cable stars should be convinced to sing along to some other, non-White House tunes from time to time. Howard Dean pulled off a bit of this two years ago, leaving traditional news outlets befuddled as to where he came from and why anyone cared. The politically inclined now have many starting places for their various chants. Indeed, last week, the Republicans, acting as a team, sang a new song that got a lot of coverage and provides us with a little case study.
Part of what has carried the Dubai/ports story is this unusual show of disunity under the Bush Administration: a rare Broken Republican Ranks sighting. Distraught senators' press conferences and angry congressmen's teevee appearances kept the news coming. The issue floated. It also helped that this opened the door for another set of voices. The political experts were able to hold forth about the damage being done to the White House, giving the story a new set of lungs.
As impressive as it was that many Republicans broke from the President's ditty and chose this moment to try their own hand at shaping the national story, it seemed an odd choice. After all, there's not actually a thing going on here. An international company wants some contracts to run some cranes. It's not the first time. It won't be the last. It's got nothing to do with security. If we can trust China with this work, we can trust Dubai. Indeed, the company involved, seeming a bit nonplussed by the furor, asked for a formal review and seems rightly confident it will come out on the winning side. There are no doubt many rich, complicated stories about international business and port security, but this isn't one of them.
The Republican Revolt
over the port deal seemed almost to be just a test of how well they could lead the chorus without team Bush. They did a fine job. A non-story led the airwaves and modems for several days. Still, one wonders when everyone will stop practicing technique and start applying it to issues that actually can stand up to several days of dissection. Imagine if the Republicans had tried their luck with something inherently more substantive.
Florida's Republican Representative Mark Foley explained his anger with the Bush White House and the Dubai deal thusly: "We've defended them on wiretaps, we've defended them on Iraq, we've defended them on so many things he's tried to accomplish, that to be left out here supporting this thing in a vacuum is kind of offensive."
Indeed. Two weeks ago the Attorney General of the United States went in front of Congress and said the Executive branch found obtaining warrants "cumbersome
." This, it seems, is something worth singing about
. Instead, as Mr. Foley, adroitly points out, the Republicans waited to try their hand at rallying the cable and Internet troops for this. The question a few thousand people should now consider blogging about is, Why?