While the endless filler and sometimes mind-numbing commentary that comes with 24-hour news networks provide plenty of subject matter worthy of eye-rolling criticism, it’s hard to find any subject that is approached with a deeper level of maddening condescension and downright idiocy than when a breaking technology-related story unfolds. Watching CNN and others last Wednesday was just the latest example in this continuously absurd area of mainstream journalism.
On July 8, 2015, there were two major disruptions that were caused as the result of computer glitches. United Airlines had an internal networking crash that caused its systemwide computer systems to be offline for a couple hours. Coincidentally, that same day, the New York Stock Exchange endured a nearly four-hour outage. That in and of itself was a major story; the NYSE has never been out of operation for that long as the result of a software glitch.
But that’s what it was: a glitch. The result of a software update gone bad. The kind of thing that companies around the country and around the world deal with every day. Yes, the length of time that the exchange was offline was historic, but only when placed in the right context.
As for the United glitch, that was also a very worthy breaking news story. Anything that disrupts international travel to that degree is huge, but it’s also far from unheard of. Additionally, all systems were back up and running that same morning, and flights resumed with far less impact than even a moderate blizzard, hurricane, or any other of the many events that are known to cause travel disruptions.
But instead of reporting these as isolated incidents, perhaps worthy of the first five or six minutes at the top of every half hour, the 24-hour news cycle decided to juice it up a bit, suggesting that two computer glitches in the same day couldn’t possibly be a random coincidence, could it? And then the icing on the cake: CNN and other networks had the audacity to rope in the fact that the Wall Street Journal’s website was also temporarily down on the same day, because they needed to fit the rule-of-three in order to make it look like a truly big news story. In reality, it may the first time in the history of 24-hours news networks that such a mundane, run-of-the-mill website outage was reported as major breaking news.
From then on, it was nonstop, commercial-to-commercial discussions with “cybersecurity experts,” tied in with reporters ranging from the expected on-the-floor NYSE reports to the absurd angle of FBI and White House correspondents weighing in. Some blowhard on Fox News even went so far as to give credence to the idea that these were somehow orchestrated attacks from North Korea.
Guess what? On the same day, several New York City subway trains had to be delayed or rerouted due to unexpected disruptions. Minor power outages occurred in cities throughout the country. And countless people had dropped calls in areas where they usually have good service. Or, as sane people refer to them, isolated incidents that literally happen every day. Is it unusual for two big software/network glitches to happen in the same day? Yes. Is that worth hours of pointless and un-constructive banter and paranoia? The cable news ratings folks may say yes, but to anyone else, absolutely not.
Let’s be clear. In the case of United Airlines and the New York Stock Exchange, there was no breach. Sensitive information was never at risk, no one suffered any real damage, and everything was resolved before the closing bell. And at no point was there any reason to suggest otherwise. In fact, the very emphatic statements made from United and the NYSE throughout the day went out of their way to assure everyone that the situations were internally contained.
Nevertheless, for hour after hour, it made for good television for news anchors and commentators to feed into the buzzworthy notion that something more devious was afoot, while the editorial and graphics departments were hard at work to make sure any casual channel-surfer would be swept up with panic if they happened to turn to any news channel for more than five seconds.
This kind of reporting breaches a level of irresponsible journalism that even wall-to-wall missing airplane coverage and exploitative political theater will never be able to achieve, because it was explicitly targeted outside the core audience, and it was 100% knowingly deceitful. It was several hours of blatant and unnecessary fear mongering for anyone who may have happened to catch a glimpse of CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC. Pandering to the people already watching the channel is one thing, but to sling around paranoid headlines and unending “what-if” commentary, for the express purpose of increasing viewership of casual viewers who end up becoming genuinely concerned, is the least acceptable ratings ploy possible.
Unfortunately, this is not just a story about one day of irresponsible journalism. Last Wednesday was a culmination of years of downright idiotic coverage on mainstream news networks whenever there is some kind of story about technology — whether it’s video games, consumer electronics, identity theft or security breaches.
In the year 2015, that’s just insulting. While not all Americans may be savvy enough to understand the intricacies of computer networks or what it means to “hack” something, that isn’t a reason to spew nonsense. These kinds of events should be used as an opportunity to educate rather than confuse and incite fear. Instead, it seems to be a generally accepted fact among all news media that technology matters don’t really need to be explained — they only exist to be the basis of ridiculous and overblown hyperbole.
One of the most remarkable examples of stupid fear-mongering techno-journalism in recent memory was when at least one Fox affiliate ran a story about how the Nintendo DS’s Pictochat program “could open the door for molesters to contact children.” The story was later pulled, but not before the full article text was copied and shared around various message boards. The concept was complete and utter nonsense, and did not take into account the fact that said pedophiles would need to be within a few feet of their potential victims, and each would need to just happen to be logged into the same program at the same time. To suggest this was going to be the new breeding ground for sexual predators was beyond offensive, but instead of reasonable explanations of how the DS wireless communications actually worked, it was more convenient to run the TV-news-friendly mantra that any kind of new innovation was worthy of renewed paranoia.
And let’s not even get started with the utterly pointless commentary that all of these news stories tend to wrap up with: the mindless talking heads who end up lamenting how scary or dangerous it is that the US relies so much on technology today, offering no suggestion as to what the alternative would be (a world without technology?)
It’s worse than clickbait. It’s worse than watching ultra liberal and ultra conservative talking heads spout their radical ideas. Why? Because these kinds of stories are reported as hard news. When Sean Hannity goes on a tirade about something, anyone with a brain knows not to take him too seriously. But even the most highly educated tech-savvy person is going to take a second look when they see the CNN lower-third graphic warning about a seemingly concentrated series of cyber attacks.
We know what a computer is. We know what it means when an internal server goes offline or there was a bug in a software update. All I can hope is that some day in my lifetime, mass media news organizations will start realizing that their most valuable audience is now fully aware of what the world is like in the 21st century. But then again, that’s probably just wishful thinking.