We tend to think that the three major cable news networks just compete against each other. They do, but they also compete for our attention against the entire universe of cable networks. Whether it's E!, Bravo or ESPN, they all want us to watch. It's a war--a cable TV ratings war--to get and keep our attention.
The daily rundowns of any cable news network can be unexciting. There's a limit to the number of medical breakthroughs we have each day. There aren't all that many dogs that save their owners by dialing 911. And when the news itself is boring, it's hard to keep people watching. That's only attained with big stories. Gone are the days when news divisions were "loss leaders" for a network or a company.
So what happens? News networks naturally become desperate for the big stories, the ones that allow them to roll out emblazoned graphics that say "BREAKING NEWS" along with dramatic music and sound effects to remind us that this news, unlike yesterday's, really is breaking.
News networks get so jacked up about big stories, they literally throw all their resources at them -- even to the exclusion of the rest of the news.
It's as though networks can't hold two competing thoughts in their heads at the same time. It's Egypt or Wisconsin, Japan or Libya, Libya or domestic politics, one or the other. Sometimes it's a matter of resources, but mostly it's a matter of ratings.
In the case of our politics, the need for the "big story" may be one of the reasons our discourse has degraded, why there's so much anger and vitriol. Each side yells louder, and says more extreme things, in order to get heard and get covered most. And if our politicians aren't being extreme, pundits and opinion shows will do it for them.
Bipartisanship, cooperation and civility just aren't "entertaining." They don't pay the bills. The guy who's willing to say each side has good ideas and tries to find practical, workable solutions is boring. If he weren't, he'd get a lot more coverage and we might get a lot more done as a country.
The same holds true when it comes to international events. The "big story" gets more coverage, because it feeds the ratings monster. And with more coverage, it seems even bigger, more serious and important than it often really is. In the case of war, that attention--taken to the extreme--may even make it seem like something needs to be done by us. Coverage can drive a short-sighted outcry for intervention.