What We Miss 24/7

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

One of the strangest news developments of our time is the way the media now focus for days, if not weeks, 24/7, on a single event and its ramifications. Omar Mateen's slaughter of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando is only the latest example of this. If no other calamitous or eye-catching event comes along ("'Unimaginable': Toddler's body recovered by divers after alligator attack at Disney resort"), it could, like the San Bernardino shootings, top the news, in all its micro-ramifications and repetitions, for three or four weeks.

Such stories -- especially mass killings, especially those with an aura of terrorism about them -- are particularly easy for strapped, often downsizing news outfits to cover. They are, in a sense, pre-packaged. A template for them is already in place: starting with the breaking news of some horror and soon after a tagline like "America in shock, [grief,] [mourning,] wondering what comes next." Then follow the inevitable grainy smartphone videos of some aspect of the horror as reporters fan out to capture the weeping faces; the brave or tearful accounts of wounded survivors; the backstory on the killer or killers and his or their tangled motivations; commentary from the usual terror (or mass shooting) experts; the latest on the FBI's follow-up investigations; the funerals for the victims, including the comments of grief counselors meant to help a nation "in mourning"; and finally, of course, the issue of "closure" and "healing," all topped -- if "terrorism" is part of the package -- by an endless frisson of horror and fascination when it comes to the influence of ISIS (or allegiance pledged to the same), lone wolves, the role of social media, and so on. In this strange election season, there is, of course, the added thrill of watching Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama in mortal battle. Who could ask for more? Not the TV news outfits that now mobilize for these events the way the military might mobilize for war. So, as the New York Times put it recently, "the news industry descended on Florida" last week, and so they did.

Such events overwhelm us, as they are meant to. They glue eyeballs, as they are also meant to, and the reporting of all of this is now so enmeshed in the events themselves that it is essentially indistinguishable from them. Undoubtedly -- given the allure of such intense, over-the-top media attention -- it actually works to encourage future acts that will rivet similar attention on the next lone wolf or group.

There is, however, one small problem worth mentioning. For days or weeks on end, a single place -- call it Newtown, San Bernardino, or Orlando (one school, one gathering of government workers, one club) -- is the center of our universe. The rest of the world? Not so much. However significant the 24/7 event may be, it blots out just about everything else and so plays havoc with our sense of what's important and what isn't. It also ensures that, at least in the mainstream, ever fewer reporters cover ever fewer non-24/7 stories.

For so much that's basic to our world and will matter far more in the long run than local slaughters, no matter how horrific, there are few or no reporters and next to no coverage. This means, for instance, that in the distant reaches of the imperium, much of the time the U.S. military can operate remarkably freely, without fear of significant scrutiny. Which is why, on the subject of the U.S. military's "pivot" to Africa, it's lucky that Nick Turse has been on the beat (almost alone) for TomDispatch (as today in his piece "The Numbers Racket"). Otherwise in our new media universe, what we don't know could, in the end, hurt us.