“Not exactly a Friday night in front of the television we’re going to forget very soon. What an amazing medium network television can be when all of its resources go into giving us a dramatic breaking news story and throwing out regularly scheduled programs. And to think, there wasn’t a White Bronco anywhere in sight.”
That, more or less, was my contribution to the online millions who had something to say in social media about the incredible Friday night television spectacle of a regionwide manhunt closing in on Suspect No. 2 in the Boston Marathon bombings – a wounded 19-year-old, hiding under a tarp all day in a bloody boat parked in a suburban backyard.
Twitter came into its own Friday night, some say. It carried crucial information everywhere (FBI suspect pictures, for instance). One responder to my Facebook “status report” – who lives in St. Petersburg, Russia – said that, on the contrary, he hadn’t watched TV all day, that Facebook and especially Twitter made everything else look like yesterday’s news.
It’s a common sound these days – the barbaric yawp from a younger generation that “our media are better than yours. Everything old must go, everything new must make sure of it.”
To which one is tempted to say – in suitably impudent and puerile online lingo – LMAO.
I’ll say this: What started out on Wednesday as a guided tour of almost everything older media could do to foul up minute-by-minute reportage of breaking news in the new cable 24/7 news cycle and the Facebook-Twitterverse straightened itself out by Friday as we all watched the gripping portrait of a great American city in hiding until its accused vicious and mocking enemy could be taken into custody.
It isn’t those terrible deaths – hideous as they are – that were in the front of my memory Friday; it was those flashing images of mutilation that somehow weren’t filtered (for reasons of “taste”) out of TV’s original coverage. One, I remember, was a howling little boy in a wheelchair with what looked like a bloody bone at the end of his right leg where his right foot should have been.
I have no doubt that some of the information and the images pouring raw into Twitter were far more up to date than TV could ever be – the neighbors, for instance, whose cellphone images could show that boat being showered with bullets as it actually happened.
No one can deny the swiftness and power of “crowdsourcing” as social media have now given them to us.
But along with those come barely penetrable incoherence, chaos and no way of separating truth from fantasy.
Something else entirely happened Friday as TV gave us the story – something that was both far more ancient, something that actually smacked of art, accidental as it was.
I watched CBS mostly throughout the night for a very simple reason: I think its use of ex-cop and CBS correspondent John Miller was exemplary. He gave them constant access to the expertise I wanted.
What we got as it seemed that every cop on the East Coast rushed into one Watertown, Mass., neighborhood was the oldest way of telling a story – the oral tradition writ large. It came to us in bits and pieces. And it came to us second and third- and fourthhand. But as I watched it unfold, I thought this must be the hypnotic way narratives came together in caves and around campfires. Pieces of information would be put together mouth-to-mouth by those who were good at entertaining others who might be eating their slices of saber-toothed tiger meat as they listened.
And while we were listening to the story take shape from different sources and angles, the images we were watching weren’t those neighbors on Twitter telling the world, “HERE’S WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE FROM MY UPSTAIRS WINDOW RIGHT NEXT DOOR!!!” (or some such thing). The images we saw were from blocks away as a steady stream of ever-larger cop vehicles turned a suburban neighborhood whose ordinary Friday night somnolence couldn’t have been more familiar into an occupied war zone where God only knows what fusillades and explosions were possible at any given moment.
Pieces of interpolated oral narrative, then, came at us from different sources while our central griot, Scott Pelley of CBS, was in the middle telling the story. And then images came at us from still other places.
The polyphonic effect had the mersmerizing grip of truly great cinematic art.
And yet, most importantly, it also had something that Facebook and Twitter couldn’t begin to give it – a filter. Journalists were doing everything humanly possible to eliminate all the BS the human race is capable of flinging from every direction when the world’s spotlights and gazes are all aimed at the same thing.
That’s where television can rivet us to our seats and keep our eyes glued to its screens. We know from so much experience it will come as close as humanly possible – so close that, in the past, people actually saw (in what we now call “real time”) Jack Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald.
As I watched all of this on Friday night, it proved to me once again how television deals with moments of huge national trauma and drama as they happen in coherent ways that combine some of the oldest narrative traditions of our species and some of the best and most complex ones. And still has a good chance of “keeping it real.” And, above all, TRUE.
Let the media bullies and generational braggarts crow insufferably about all the new technologies that are putting old media out of its dreadful misery.
What I found most amazing about Friday night is how – again, entirely by accident – all of us in front of the tube had been turned into just what we were around the campfire thousands of years ago.
And – again entirely by accident – we sometimes got narrative art as brilliantly slant and indirect as a novel by Henry James.
What an amazing experience Friday night was in front of the television set.
A quick holdover impression of Ed Kilgore’s farewell to Channel 2 news after four decades: I certainly understood why his on-air retirement from the staff had to be rushed. Once he took a job with Terry Pegula, there was no way he could report a single word on the city’s premier hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres. But the upshot of it all is that his own prepared 2½-minute farewell emphasized all sorts of things viewers and co-workers might not have. Nor was there any farewell commentary from longtime colleagues Rich Kellman and Barry Lillis. It was too hastily done to be what it should have been.