What hath the 24/7 news cycle wrought?

What hath the 24/7 news cycle wrought? Filling in for the vacationing Dan Okrent, Jack Rosenthal suggests in the NYT today that today’s abundance of news outlets is resulting in (wait, where was I? oh, yes) attention deficit disorder.


Much more news and much faster news: it has created a kind of widespread attention deficit disorder. When news events cycled in and out of the spotlight more slowly, they stayed in the public mind longer. People could pay attention until issues of moment were resolved. Now, we are surrounded by news – on the TV at the gym, on the AOL home page, on the car radio on the way to work. To pass through Times Square is to be enveloped by no fewer than four electronic zippers flashing headlines day and night.

With such saturation coverage, news gets used up faster, decaying rapidly into what Russell Baker calls “the olds.” Public curiosity, let alone the public interest, is exhausted, and the mass media are quick to look for some new sensation even if that means leaving important issues unresolved. News grows old before its time.

Of course, this is ridiculous. It’s as ridiculous as the claim that having too many consumer product choices causes us anxiety. I suspect that Rosenthal and his fellow Timesmen would prefer us going back to the day when the NYT and a few other outlets controlled the news distribution and cycle. It would be so simple and less anxiety causing and we would have much better attention. The fact is, it’s only going to get (fill in “better” or “worse” depending on whether you want more or less variety and speed of delivery). At the same time, there will be more tools (personally, I think Rosenthal could stand an RSS newsreader to help him cope) to deal with it. And frankly, turning off the news and avoiding the whole fire-hose blast of punditry isn’t such a bad thing. (I mean, for others.)

(P.S. About the heading: “What hath …. wrought?” is a reference to the first message sent on an experimental telegraph by Samuel Morse in 1844. If you’ve ever toured the U.S. Capitol and have been in the room now restored as the original Supreme Court, you’ve been in the room where Morse tapped out the sentence, “What hath God wrought?” taken from the King James version of the Old Testament, Numbers 23:23.)