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CNN And The Commercialization Of Tragedy

Calum Hayes |
March 25, 2014 | 1:00 p.m. PDT


It's time for CNN to stop getting rich off of tragedy. (Time Warner, Wikimedia Commons.)
It's time for CNN to stop getting rich off of tragedy. (Time Warner, Wikimedia Commons.)
You never realize you’re in the middle of a bad joke until it’s too late to do anything. Yet, that’s exactly where I found myself Saturday morning. There’s a joke that if you’re watching CNN, you’re either at the gym or sitting in the airport. I’d like to add a Greyhound bus station to that list.

For three hours Saturday morning I watched CNN lead every segment with the same exact “news” about a new satellite image that may or may not have shown a part of missing Malaysian Air flight MH370. Around the 90-minute mark, CNN’s excuse for “journalism” became too much. CNN had managed to make a three-hour layover at a Greyhound station in Van Horn Texas at 4:00 a.m. even worse. (Which, damn.) 

Not until the 2:20 minute mark of that stay in Van Horn (we kept track) did CNN bother to mention any other newsworthy events. Like, you know, Russia getting ready to invade Moldova. That morning in the bus station (why I ended up there is a story for a different time) I found myself recoiling from our 24-hour news cycle. If this system of having to deliver news around the clock every day leads to what we’ve all seen CNN try to pass off as news journalism the past 17 days, you can count me out. 

At some point you have to pull the plug on a story and talk about other things. Stop showing the same picture of a woman crying; stop showing your simulation of what might have happened to the plane for the umpteenth time; stop telling me it’s “BREAKING NEWS” when you told me it was “BREAKING NEWS” two hours ago. 

CNN has played to the part of our brain that loves the “what if?” with their coverage of the missing plane. They have manipulated us into thinking “Country X has a new satellite photo that could maybe possibly sorta kinda potentially be a part of the plane!” counts as news. 

Somehow the network has filled 17 days with exactly no new information. As of that Saturday morning (day 15 of what CNN is covering like the modern day Iran Hostage Crisis) there was exactly nothing confirmable that we didn’t know on day 3. All we had done was cycle through a number of inconclusive satellite photos and empty expanses of ocean. The problem with treating this missing flight like the Iran Hostage Crisis is that by their very nature they are opposites. The Hostage Crisis was an ongoing event with an inconclusive ending. The ending to flight MH370, while still tragic, is conclusive.

That the families of those 239 passengers will never see their loved ones again is tragic. However, CNN showing them weeping wont make their families whole again. Trying to determine if the plane was hijacked or crashed wont bring them back. Instead of reporting hard news and making sure things can be confirmed, CNN has done everything they can to trade on the "Disaster Porn" trend that has swept Hollywood recently. (Superman and Lois Lane making out on top of a leveled city definitely checks both boxes.) 

Instead of waiting to see if the satellite photos helped turn anything up, CNN told us “maybe.” And then they said it again, and again, and again until finally they remembered people are dying in Eastern Europe as well. 

After 9/11, news networks had to make a choice about when you pull the plug on a story and report other things. They’ve had to do the same with the disappearance of Malaysian Air flight MH370. Every other network has gone back to reporting the rest of the world along with the flight, while CNN continues to spend 80% of it’s time trading on what can only be described as “not-news.” At some point their behavior starts to look a lot like commercializing this tragedy. If there's nothing new about the story at any given minute, why does CNN continue to cover it like it's a well of breaking news?

It is long past time CNN started reporting something other than maybes again. It is time for CNN to pull the plug and acknowledge the world has continued turning since the plane disappeared and there are other things to talk about. Then again, maybe they cant pull the plug; because with the way they’re covering this story, it’s the only thing keeping the lights on. 


Contact Calum Hayes here, follow him here.



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