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In the 24-hour news era, news arrives on two completely separate tracks

There they are – Gilligan, the Skipper and the Professor on the beach of Gilligan’s Island. The Professor is frantically trying to get the Minnow’s ship radio to work. Gilligan and the Skipper look on apprehensively. What you see behind them all as a backdrop is the huge fuselage of a Boeing 777, on which is written “Malaysia Airlines.”

The caption to the yawping photo-shopped joke is “Finally!”

It made me laugh when an old friend sent it to me early in the week.

But it also made me think. (As well it should, whether it was intended to or not.)

There was never anything the slightest bit funny about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The families of the 239 lost passengers and crew members were going to live through hell from the first reports of the disappearance. Because so few are American – or even from the Western Hemisphere – it is, in cold truth, probably much easier for American TV watchers to feel much less of an intimate connection with the calamity than they might.

None of it stopped our 24-hour news machine from grinding out endless stories about how little new was known. And those – as they always do – were responsible for the equally endless analyses by News Puritans lamenting the total takeover of ratings worship and audience pandering in the New World Order of Journalism.

All of which, it seemed to me, was crashingly beside the point.

We don’t just have major news stories anymore. We haven’t for decades.

In the Age of Information, breaking information comes to us on two tracks: the news stories themselves and the subsequent jokes and commentary about the packages the stories arrive in. They can always be viewed in a large plastic box covered with the ridicule and disapproval of those in the business of earning their daily bread supplying ridicule and disapproval.

Hence, all the Internet memes and funny photoshops that make the rounds, just in case Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, SNL and the nightly monologue-ing wiseacres are thought to fall down on the job – which they seldom ever do.

It’s all very simple and always was: There just isn’t always enough major news. So you’ve got to talk about any old thing and call it “news.” When something huge happens – an airliner, say, disappears completely with 239 passengers aboard – all the journalistic skill and effort in the world can’t guarantee a continuing flow of “new” information about it. More will be known when it will be known – and not before.

If ever.

It makes for endless hours of “nothing new here so we’ll keep on repeating ourselves,” which, despite being empty filler professionally packaged, can get excellent ratings.

Because, news or not, it’s a great STORY.

If you’ll indulge me a little rudeness here, let me bend a social taboo among gentlefolk and offer the following: I told you so. So help me, I did. And I have proof.

Way back in 1980, when Ted Turner gave the world that ridiculous new idea – a whole 24-hour network devoted to nothing but news – I heard from the more grizzled news veterans around here that it just might be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

So I felt like a cad and an ingrate for raising my hand in the back of class and asking the obvious question: What do you do on a 24-hour news channel when you run out of actual news? Isn’t that, um, a problem?

So I eventually wrote a column quoting the classic 1928 essay by J.B.S. Haldane “On Being the Right Size” on some obvious facts of biology – that “a hare could not be as large as a hippopotamus, or a whale as small as a herring.” You can’t have a “giant man 60 feet high either” wrote Haldane, because “every square inch of giant bone had to support 10 times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone.” And “the human thigh bone breaks under 10 times the human weight.” So much for the existence of 60-foot giants.

CNN broke the supporting thighbone of news. It just buckled under the 24-hour a day weight. Filler was needed everywhere to keep it erect.

A few months before confessing my doubts about CNN’s virtual guarantee of impending B.S. to come, I wrote this: The Age of News to come won’t be a Golden Age of TV News but a “cheap plastic age, with lots of news and information programming and not much to it. The dangers and damages outweigh the advantages.” That’s from 1980.

So now we have “news stories.” But the two words don’t always go together. Where there is no “news” whatsoever, you can still have a hell of an ongoing “story.” That’s what the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is and will always be, whatever the resolution.

Let’s get real here. This was the equivalent of a suspense novel – or a terrific movie or TV series, all of it unfolding in ever-so-leisurely “real time.” It may never conclude completely.

That led me to ask myself the obvious question: Why is every single source of information shaking the same tree for aviation experts and government officials, when there exists a whole class of people that someone ought to be talking to but no one is?

I’m referring, of course, to those paid to imagine things – novelists and screenwriters.

In this continuing real-life novel or TV series or movie, someone should have figured out a proper context for some commentary by Stephen King. Or maybe Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of “Lost.” Or, if someone could somehow do the impossible and coax him into the public eye, get some commentary from ex-journalist Thomas Harris, the man who wrote the original novels “Black Sunday,” “Red Dragon,” “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal.”

If journalists whose living is dependent on the facts are up against a wall with such a fascinating and stupendous mystery story, maybe the time has come to consider commentary by those paid to exercise unfettered imaginations.

As long as no one is ever confused about the labeling, people in the fact business could gain a lot by talking to those in the imagination business. Call it the “Castle” effect.

If the world of 24-hour news can squarely face the total absence, sometimes, of anything resembling news, maybe they need pure speculation (accurately labeled) by those whose imaginations and inventions so often predict the world we live in.

The brilliance of so many of them is far beyond those “experts” who have been sentenced to telling TV news cameras that no, they have nothing new to offer.

If 24-hour news is going to present us with so much plastic, why not shape it into something brand new to look at and listen to?


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