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Walk the Walk
by Peter Beinart

Post date 11.29.01 | Issue date 12.10.01    

The general consensus is that, culturally, September 11 has improved America. People are kinder, more patriotic, more united. Journalists are learning foreign languages; students are mulling careers in the CIA; Oprah recently did a show on the principles of Islam. The cultural climate is improving, with one exception: the crawl.

The crawl is TV-speak for the bottom-of-the-screen news ticker that showed up on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC on September 11 and has remained there ever since. Media critics, old fogies, and self-conceived highbrows have been tuttutting about it for months now, and they are absolutely right. In fact, the crawl is even worse than the pointy-heads say it is. It doesn't only give you a headache; it may actually be undermining the war.

The usual complaint about the crawl is that it's distracting. It draws your eyes downward, and by the time you've processed the latest news-nugget scrolling past, you've lost track of what the person on the main screen is saying. Danielle Gorash, a Fox News spokesperson, told Knight Ridder, "We think our audience is smart enough to consume two bits of information at a time." I don't. What the audience really experiences is what Microsoft researcher Linda Stone has called "continuous partial attention." It's the same thing that happens when you talk on your cell phone and drive at the same time--you grasp all the incoming information less clearly.

In that sense, the crawl is cousin to the even more Attention Deficit Disorder-inducing CNN Headline News. CNN executives say they redesigned Headline News, cramming more information onto the screen, to appeal to "time warriors"--a stupid phrase even before September 11. The channel's new format features a CNN logo in the bottom-right corner, a weather map just above it, sports scores on the bottom left, headlines directly above that, the time smack in the center, bullet points about one particular story on the top left, and in the screen's top right-hand quarter, tiny anchors and correspondents reporting on that second's "main story." The trade publication Cablevision recently noted a delicious coincidence: On August 6, the day Headline News unveiled its new look, the tiny anchorwoman reported that a new study led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University had concluded, "The more tasks you do, the less efficient, and less effective, your brain becomes." As Dr. Marcel Just, the study's director, put it, "You can't just keep piping new things through and expect the brain to keep up." The tiny anchorwoman didn't note the irony.

But the larger problem with the crawl isn't just distraction per se; it's what the cable news stations are distracting from and to. Versions of the crawl have existed for years--they've popped up on the bottom of TV screens to report urgent information, and then disappeared when the urgent news passed. If a storm were headed to your area, a crawl would scroll across the screen, often with instructions about what to do. Crawls reported school closings. On election night, they reported results from around the country.

When CNN, Fox, and MSNBC instituted the crawl on September 11, they initially followed this familiar pattern. Journalists might be interviewing government officials or speculating about the terrorists' motives on the main screen, but viewers needed basic information immediately--what had happened? Should they evacuate their homes or offices? How could they find out if their loved ones were safe? Those early crawls often provided telephone numbers and websites where people could go to learn the same kind of vital information they'd have needed in case of a natural disaster.

Eventually, such information was no longer needed. But America soon began bombing Afghanistan, and anthrax letters started appearing in the mail. So although the crawl no longer served the same public safety role, it was arguably justified for the same reason networks have news tickers on election night. These were massive, highly unusual stories--viewers needed the latest on the war, and on domestic terrorism, right away. The crawl didn't only convey unusually important information; it signaled to viewers that something unusually important was still going on.

And that is exactly what the crawl no longer does. The news about the war and about anthrax is no longer so allconsuming; life is returning to normal. And so the crawl has become a digest of largely normal news. I witnessed the result in a weekend of intermittent CNN-watching before writing this column. On the main screen, correspondents spoke about the standoff at Kunduz, where Al Qaeda fighters were threatening a fight to the death. Meanwhile, the crawl reported that Americans had taken in 1.25 trillion calories over the Thanksgiving holiday. When the main screen focused on a Connecticut woman dying of anthrax, the crawl noted that Christmas tree sales were expected to be strong this year. When the main screen aired interviews with families whose relatives had died in the Pentagon attack, the crawl told of a Nebraska man who had entered the Guinness Book of World Records for piercing his body 171 times in one sitting.

The crawl still conveyed urgency, but there was no urgency to convey. The form of the information misrepresented its content. In that way, the crawl epitomizes a common problem in the United States today. Cell phone calls interrupt daily life with an implied urgency; but their content is now mundane. During last year's presidential campaign, both candidates used technology to transmit their messages more urgently than ever before. But the messages themselves weren't urgent at all; they were hackneyed and shallow.

This misrepresentation is more dangerous now that we are at war. During war, sharp distinctions must be drawn between what suddenly matters and what suddenly does not. And a nation that cannot draw those distinctions will have difficulty mobilizing itself politically, economically, and culturally. In many ways, American society--and even the media--has drawn those distinctions well since September 11. But the crawl suggests backsliding. When a TV station displays information about America at war, or America under attack, it is an intellectual and moral abdication to offer viewers simultaneous information about Christmas tree sales. It implies that the information is equally important. Network executives say they need the crawl to bring people all the other news that the war is blocking out. But given that people have a finite ability to receive information, that blocking-out is precisely what network executives should be doing. They shouldn't tell viewers what to think about the war, but they should absolutely tell them that, support it or abhor it, the war is more important than our Thanksgiving caloric intake.

For several years now, the leaders of the Fourth Estate have been saying that in an age of information overload, the media's role is to prioritize information, making judgments about what matters and what does not. Too bad that at the very moment we need those judgments most, the cable news networks have given us the crawl instead.



PETER BEINART is the Editor of TNR.







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