The CNN Affect

Consider the last couple weeks a case study in American infomania.

Infomania refers to the compulsion to accumulate information, especially news, via cell phone or computer -- a kind of Digital-Age hoarding disorder. (The term was coined in 1982 by Elizabeth Ferrarini, whose Confessions of an Infomaniac sounds like a Cosmo article ahead of its time.)

The pathology of infomania is one of debilitating distraction; the infomaniac obsessively interrupts her experience of the unmediated "real world" with the virtual reality of news and social media. It's not merely an addiction to technology. It's an impulse to subordinate the material to the immaterial; in the original sense of the word, the infomaniac blots out things that matter with things that don't.

Familiar enough, but what does it look like when the media itself comes down with a case of infomania?

For two weeks now, U.S. news has been fixated on the nothingness of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Monday's report that the plane "ended" somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean does little to justify the hundreds of hours of transcripts summing to "No plane, no news, more on that after a brief word from our sponsors."

Of course, 24-hour news networks have long understood how to make any news look and sound "breaking" (hire anchors to blare factoids to taste; solicit live comment from specialists, rabble-rousers, the good-looking, etc.; call it analysis; boil down to sensational captions; scroll a never-ending ticker across the bottom for garnish), but a vanished Boeing 777 is less Wolf Blitzer than it is Alfred Hitchcock, and the lesson that mystery teaches journalism is that suspense (built up by the sort of rhetorical misdirection demonstrated here) beats resolution -- forget the facts; missing information is more compelling.

In the last couple days, in what appears to be some kind of shame-faced hangover, the media has even passed off as news a few tidbits of quasi-self-awareness. The kicker is, at least for CNN -- whose ratings surged almost 100 percent in prime time last week, with Anderson Cooper leading for three consecutive days against cable's reigning spectacle, Bill O'Reilly -- the affected obsession with Flight 370 is paying off.

In her book The Interplay of Influence: News, Advertising, Politics, and the Mass Media, Kathleen Hall Jamieson notes that most news stories are framed in one of five modes: (1) Appearance versus reality; (2) Little guys versus big guys; (3) Good versus evil; (4) Efficient versus the inefficient; or (5) Unique or bizarre events versus the routine.

It's number five that should give us pause. Welcome to the viral world of animals kissing; to Snowmageddons, funny dances and two-headed babies; to Kanye spoofs and Jean Claude Van-Damme's "epic split." Welcome, alas, to Flight 370.

Two weeks ago, 239 passengers (including three Americans) went missing. That isn't just unique or bizarre; it's devastating. And yet: "It's an incredible mystery full of human drama, with an international element," gushed one senior CNN executive to The New York Times. "Anything international plays into our hands because we have more reporters to deploy all over the world."

So where does one draw the line between tragedy and thriller, between acknowledging victims' families' lack of closure and cashing in on a cliffhanger?

How about, for starters, when "human drama" is used as pretext for bull sessions about black holes, the paranormal, terrorists, the Bible and/or this toy plane. Or when the "international element" is invoked to the neglect of, say, civil rebellion in Syria, Venezuela and Thailand, Russia's annexation of Crimea, or the terrorist attack in Kabul.

At the end of the Cold War, saturation coverage of events like Tiananmen Square, the first Gulf War, Black Hawk Down and the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed the power that mass media has to shape Washington's policy agenda by promoting a felt sense of history as it unfolds. Political scientists even called it "The CNN Effect."

But then I'm hardly the first to point out the news media's dissociation from history: "Cable news is a brutal war for rankings ... The media is running wild with the airliner story, as you know, and there is a big reason why: money. The network news doesn't want to cover important stories," and here I should mention that this is Bill O'Reilly speaking, "like the IRS and Benghazi."