Scott Stanford: Living for around-the-clock news

From the Editor

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I spent the last few days in San Antonio watching news around the clock with my father.

Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer in February and given 12 months, give or take, to live. It's no surprise that his health has progressively deteriorated despite multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. But I give him credit - he keeps fighting. He went in for another round of chemotherapy Wednesday.

On good days, my dad can make it to the recliner in the living room for his primary preoccupation - watching FOX News. The news literally puts color in his cheeks.

He looks forward to my visits so that we can talk politics and current events. I have to admit - I have trouble keeping up even though I'm the newspaperman. He's simply aware of a lot more issues.

For four days in San Antonio, we watched the daytime news channels - mostly FOX with some MSNBC and CNN thrown in. I have never before invested so much time in the 24-hour news networks. What I saw was both fascinating and unnerving.

So much time was spent dissecting Bill Clinton's angry interview with FOX's Chris Wallace that it occurred to me that the number of people who will quote from and debate that interview will probably be a hundred times greater than the number of people who actually saw the interview.

More time was spent talking about the contents of Bob Woodward's new book about the war in Iraq than on coverage of the war in Iraq. I found myself thinking that most of the people talking about the book likely haven't read the book. I doubt many of them ever will.

It was a little stunning how quickly the media were on top of the shootings at the Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania. Helicopters had aerial video footage long before there was anything credible to report. In the first hours of the story, MSNBC, FOX and CNN all reported different numbers of victims. The anchors were cautious to say "unconfirmed reports," but they reported the numbers anyway.

They hinted that the shooter might be Amish. A school resource officer used the shooting to make the case for continued grant funding. An expert in Mennonite culture talked about the ways of the Amish. An FBI profiler speculated on who the shooter was. All this, of course, was being streamed to the Web and buzzed to iPods and cell phones.

If you watched only the first two hours of coverage, you had no idea what really happened at that schoolhouse.

Sadly, journalism in such an environment is loose and fast and sloppy. And it's not limited to TV. Newspapers make the same mistakes in their rush to get news on the Internet. You have to report something,

even when there's nothing to report, or risk losing your audience to somebody else who is reporting something, even if there isn't anything to report.

My dad has his beefs with the media. He's a supporter of the war in Iraq, and he doesn't like the media's tendency to second-guess and focus on pessimistic projections for the future. He doesn't like the way we use hindsight to cast judgments on decisions that were made in the past. He thinks public support is critical for the long and difficult fight it will take to win the war and that the media take joy in undermining such public support.

Yet, when he's feeling well enough to make it to his recliner, he'll do so, ready for another steady diet of news and whatever passes for news when there's no news to report. It engages his mind, the part of his body that he can still count on. I can only hope that I get another chance to watch with him.

From the Editor appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today. Send questions to Scott Stanford at sstanford@steamboatpilot.com, or call him at 871-4221.

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