No doubt many people reading this will have had the misfortune of watching BBC News 24 or Sky News as an unexpected or supposedly newsworthy event unfolds live on screen.
Invariably in these instances – think of the failed terrorist attack on Glasgow airport or coverage of state events – there is much speculation, completely unnecessary on-location camera pieces, constantly looped footage of not very much at all, surface analysis and a complete absence of hard news and facts. If, like me, you have been exasperated by this type of brain-dead news coverage, then Howard Rosenburg and Charles Feldman’s No Time To Think: The Menace Of Media Speed And The 24-hour News Cycle is the book for you.
Focusing on the US experience, Pulitzer Prize-winning former Los Angeles Times television critic Rosenburg and investigative journalist Feldman argue that the media is increasingly produced and consumed with "reckless speed." Wanting to get the edge on their competitors and, most importantly, fill airtime, journalists race to produce the quickest report and analysis, often cutting back on the fact-checking and research that comprise good journalism.
Taking time out from teaching at the University of Southern California, Rosenburg explains that "media speed is a risky thing, as is speed in arguably all forms of human endeavour involving the brain. The faster our brains travel, the more likelihood of miscalculation." Although Rosenburg admits "speed has been a component of journalism since its inception," No Time To Think highlights how the news cycle has been shrinking since the introduction of the 24-hour cable news networks, a path forged by CNN from 1980.
Since then, Rosenburg argues, the advent of the internet, blogosphere and "citizen journalists" has created pressure for even greater speed and a huge opportunity for "self-serving demagogues who disseminate rumour, innuendo and their own ejaculated opinions as fact." Of course, the media has always had their share of these types, "but the swift-evolving internet – spewing a vast ocean of information and faux information about a quarter-inch deep – has inflated this minority into the swollen multitudes."
"Neither Charles nor I are technophobes who advocate dialling back human achievement and returning to the good old days, which were not all that good," Rosenburg expands. "We believe that humans should drive technology instead of vice versa. In too many cases, the technology is employed not because doing so makes journalistic sense but because it’s available."
How the need for speed degrades our political culture is perfectly encapsulated by the comparison the authors make between political debates taking place in the 19th and 21st centuries. In 1858 Abraham Lincoln, who was fighting for a seat in the Senate, is reported to have been asked to speak for one hour, with his opponent given 90 minutes to reply. Fast forward nearly 150 years to 2007 and you have CNN’s Anderson Cooper asking Rudi Giuliani to sum up how the US should repair its image in the Muslim world in 90 seconds.
But can the detrimental effects of "media speed" adequately explain long-running news stories such as the media’s acquiescence in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq? "I believe speed was a contributing factor," Rosenburg replies. "Knee-jerk responses, sloppy reporting without taking the time to dig deeper." He believes that "the general timidity" journalists exhibited during this "very dark and depressing chapter in the history of Western media" was due to "a cowardly fear that critical, even moderately sceptical reporting of the invasion and occupation would be seen by many Americans as unpatriotic."
Interestingly, Rosenburg argues that media speed is "non-partisan and apolitical, transcending philosophies, biases and ideologies and all isms." However, it seems to me that a speed-driven news media heavily favours the status quo. As US dissident Noam Chomsky explained in the landmark 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent, "the beauty of concision is that you can only repeat conventional thoughts." Indeed, relating that Feldman was once asked by CNN to do a report on Islamic fundamentalism in 60 seconds, Rosenburg himself asks rhetorically in No Time To Think: "How can you have an understanding of anything if you’ve had only one minute of explanation?" Rosenburg partially concedes the point, noting "nuances of all slants elude conventional media" because "feeding the ravenous beast – the 24-hour news hole – requires cable news operations to indiscriminately repeat anything they hear, conventional thoughts or otherwise."
Regarding resistance to the ever-quickening media juggernaut, Rosenburg admits: "The 24-hour news cycle, which may already have shrunk to 24 minutes or even 24 seconds, will not vanish." However, he believes that No Time To Think offers "a way forward through media literacy beginning with children as small as toddlers."
"We’re talking about making it as much a part of school curricula as reading and history," he says. "Not teaching them to operate the levers of information technology, but instead deconstructing and peeling back the layers of media to expose the genesis of this information that hits us with such speed." He admits this doesn’t actually do anything to slow the speed of the news, "but would enable us – starting from a young age – to better cope with it."
No Time To Think: The Menace Of Media Speed And The 24-hour News Cycle is published by Continuum, priced £9.99. An edited version of this article recently appeared in the Morning Star. [email protected].