The diagnosis: acute news bulimia.
The symptoms: mass gorging on a news story and then purging.
It's always one story at a time – The Story.
The War. The Space Shuttle Columbia. The Rhode Island nightclub fire. The DC snipers. The Elizabeth Smart case. The Laci Peterson affair.
Monica. Chandra. Jon Benet. Columbine.
And I have already forgotten at least three other recent big ones. They've been purged.
We have become gluttons for The Story. It is served around-the-clock, in huge portions.
The biggest purveyors are the cable news channels that serve one story at a time, 24/7. There is always a full menu of side dishes to serve with The Story: experts, commentators, former something-or-others, victims, friends of victims, friends of the victim' friends, and psychologists who help us feel the right things about The Story.
We at Internet news sites promote news obesity too (insert obligatory mea culpa here). We serve our stories buffet-style, however, because we are not limited by time and space as television is. Like newspapers, we can and do cover more than one story at a time. Just barely, sometimes.
The over-the-air networks cannot serve constant jumbo portions of The Story as the cables nets do, except for those very rare occasions when they go into 24-hour news coverage. Still, the morning news shows, the evenings news broadcasts and the primetime shows always manage to feed the beast big chunks of The Story. And this is where the big audiences, the big crowds come to feast.
Newspapers and magazines attach themselves to The Story just as much. They just look more dignified doing it because they can print extra pages and cover more than one story at a time, like us Webbies.
I am both a consumer and a producer of this kind of news. That is not a proud admission.
I am sure as hell not the first guy to notice The Story phenomenon and get irritated by it. I'm sure every TV critic and culture vulture in the country has witty and devastating rants against the new news cycle in their clip files and I'm sure they are more witty and devastating than this rant.
But I would submit that the growth of our disease, News Bulimia, has made a quantum leap recently.
I say this because part of my job is studying the traffic patterns on this site – how many people log on to which stories? Sometime after September 11, I'm not at all sure when or why, traffic patterns changed. Our graphs became more spiked. A story would quickly generate huge traffic, traffic to other areas would decline, and then interest in that story would disappear.
The binge-and-purge cycle has become faster and more extreme.
The anniversary of 9/11 generated huge interest – for a few days.
When unknown snipers were stalking the Washington area, national interest in the story was off the charts. It became a non-story 48 hours after Malvo and Muhammad were caught and their basic stories told.
The 2002 elections made for a very big story, for about 48 hours.
And after that statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad was yanked down on Wednesday, April 9, the massive national preoccupation with the war came down too. Few of my colleagues weren't struck by the sudden shift of national attention. Of course, interest in things Iraqi didn't disappear. But news consumers sure seemed eager to hear about anything else – or no news at all.
When we've been in the midst of The Story, news consumers quickly become specialists, masters of The Story's minute details.
I know this because I read the e-mails people who use CBSNews.com send us. Because I am in the news business friends, relatives and people who sell me things in stores tend to share their news views with me. And I can report that during The Story – any Story – I will know a half dozen civilians who are binging, who know far more about the minutia of The Story than I ever could.
And two months later, all that knowledge is gone. The intense interest is gone. Indeed, revulsion often sets in. "If I hear another word about O.J. Simpson I will scream."
It's been purged. And it's on to the next carving station of the reality smorgasbord.
I'm sure there are deep explanations for all this: social alienation, the decline of neighborhood-based communities, the consolidation of corporate media ownership and the general decline of Western civilization are some.
Consumers' have big appetites for news that entertains -- and for entertainment that looks like news. Media companies are in the business of filling, if not creating, such appetites.
There is the information overload. There are 419 TV channels, thousands of Web sites, beepers, Blackberries, and cell phones -- all attached to bizarre mobile head-set devices that pump raw reality spewage directly into our brain cavities. Until we pull the plugs, and come back for more.
We jump wildly from being famished and fixated to being stuffed but not satisfied. It is an unhealthy disorder.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer