The images on CNN made compelling viewing – if you didn’t really care about the absence of news.
In one section of the screen a reporter stood in the rain outside an Australian air force base, explaining how it was too wet for search planes to take off.
In another corner of the screen a camera focused on a radar technician watching an empty screen intently.
Also in the picture were anchorman Wolf Blitzer and his panel of experts seated around a table covered with flight recording equipment. In the background a massive clock was counting down the time left for the batteries powering the flight recorder.
Underlining the entire TV collage was a big red banner splashed with the words “Time Running Out”.
To be fair to CNN, after two weeks of delving frantically into the mystery of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, journalists finally had a good lead to chew on on Thursday. Satellite images appeared to show two large pieces of white debris in a remote area of the Indian Ocean identified as the most likely location for the missing plane.
CNN was not alone in devoting round-the-clock coverage to the mystery happening on the other side of the world. In what trade paper Variety called a “coverage frenzy”, other cable news channels such as Fox News and MSNBC were devoting all their airtime to the tragedy as viewers clamoured for information.
It was hard to remember that just a day or two ago the same newscasters were reporting on the crisis in Ukraine as an imminent precursor to World War III.
“When I’ve watched CNN on my television, I thought they were doing it [the missing plane] way too much, especially given this other gigantic story that’s unfolding in Crimea,” Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, told The Daily Beast.
But ultimately the news channels were catering to their audience.
“I’ve never been interested in watching the news, but I turn on the TV as soon as I get home from school to find out about the missing 777,” said Brandon Laguna, a 17-year-old high school student in California.
People like him have the news executives excited about covering the Malaysia Airlines story with such gusto.
Other Asian tragedies have transfixed viewers before – the tsunami in Thailand, or the Fukushima disaster come to mind.
But the current story appears perhaps even more gripping, perhaps because so much remains unknown, and also because ultimately the scope of the disaster is more limited and, thus, less painful.
Lisa de Moraes, the TV columnist of media website Deadline, had another explanation. “Viewers love this story because it’s jammed with mystery, and pathos, and taps into their fear of flying – like Lost,” she wrote Thursday, referring to the hit television series about a plane-load of passengers marooned on a desert island.
The coverage gave critics plenty to gripe about.
Bill O’Reilly, the combative and verbose Fox News anchor, complained that the coverage was turning cable news into “a burlesque show, a farce”. Maybe he was upset that the tragedy had helped CNN finally beat his evening ratings, or that there was no way to blame the disaster on US President Barack Obama, and he certainly had plenty of right-wing allies eager to kill the story.
“I think in the coverage, what annoys me, is the way it’s become a game when in fact it’s a terrible event,” said Charles Krauthammer, the doyen of right-wing columnists. “And there are people who are terribly suffering.”
But Jake Tapper, the highly regarded journalist whose show The Lead heads CNN’s daytime programming, justified the coverage.
“There’s high viewer interest in this story, which combines a potential tragedy involving 239 missing persons – three of them American – with discussions of and reporting about the state of modern aviation, counter terrorism, Boeing, the US Navy, geo-politics and international relations,” he said.
His colleague, star reporter Anderson Cooper, agreed. “People are really obsessed with it. And it’s a fascinating, horrible story,” Cooper said, adding, “This has not happened, ever.”