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Covering Columbia

Chris Elliot

When it comes to major events, the dedicated news channels have become increasingly reliant on centering their broadcasts on provocative imagery.

Covering major events or disasters has become something of a specialized form for news channels these days. It's a subgenre of reporting with clear procedures, narrative devices and conceits. So on Saturday, February 1, when we woke up to the news that the space shuttle Columbia had disappeared from NASA's monitoring systems and was feared lost, I knew what to expect and how to navigate unfolding events.

I got a cup of coffee, and started toggling between cable news' binary poles, Fox News and CNN, with the occasional side-trip to MSNBC. Not surprisingly, the torturous pursuit of understanding the causes of the disaster took a backseat to more immediate and more achievable ends. That is, "talking through it," framing the picture of the disaster to evoke emotional responses. We know this tabloid tv drill by now: competing theories, voiced by opposed talking heads, establish seeming conflict and contemplation when there are few or no facts to consider.

And indeed, within hours of the Columbia event, a host of obscure players and pundits were marshaled to begin the relentless conversation. Virtually all of the news programming on Saturday and the majority of Sunday was devoted to exploring every possible nuance of the story. The networks desperately searched for new angles, but weren't above recycling the old ones (how many times was that foam padding theory tossed about?).

The familiar pattern of this discussion blends hard analysis, emotion-centered tactics of daytime expose television, and Court TV-style interrogatory. Considerations of the physics of the heat-dissipating tiles led into footage of flags being lowered to half-mast which in turn flowed into debates over whether a pattern of budget cuts had virtually assured the disaster.

But, for all the energy committed to this enterprise, a kind of odd emptiness pervaded. Somehow, it didn't achieve the effect of the Challenger disaster. It was Challenger-lite. This is not to diminish the horror of losing seven astronauts, but to note that the quality of the Columbia event was not nearly as visceral or surprising.

Some of this emptiness is just a byproduct of historical contingency. As Howard Kurtz noted in the Washington Post, most people today don't have the illusions of infallibility with which pre-Challenger audiences viewed shuttle launches (3 February 2003). Most of us had a precedent with which to comprehend the destruction of the Columbia, a precedent that wasn't available prior to 1986. This precedent, to a degree, neutralized the shock of the disaster.

Even beyond initial responses, other factors contribute to why this spectacle didn't have staying power. In part, the event didn't have the qualities we now expect, even demand, from our televised disasters, qualities like explicit detail. It was almost mundane watching the distant pieces of the shuttle flaring in the sky. Certainly nowhere near as "dynamic" and riveting as the Twin Towers collapsing.

The Columbia event neatly exposed a not-so-secret little secret about today's 24/7 news media enterprises. For all their apparent devotion to talk (evidenced in talk-news shows like Hannity & Colmes and Crossfire), when it comes to major events, the dedicated news channels have become increasingly reliant on centering their broadcasts on provocative imagery, employing pictures as centerpieces around which a wide range of stories are developed. When it comes to events like Columbia, the medium is driven by a visual economy much more so than other genres of news media.

CNN, after all, was built on the extraordinary power of the grainy-greenish, early morning footage of tracers rising into the Baghdad sky in 1991 (the channel perpetuates this image as a sort of "official" origin myth). When the images exist, as they have in abundance for our recent techno-wars or the war on terrorism (think of the bin Laden and Al-Qaeda training tapes), they can be used again and again. But when visual "evidence" or sensationalism is less available, the incessant drive to display everything becomes the medium's worst enemy.

In the case of the Columbia story, for at least the first two days (generally speaking, the days of highest media output for such events) the media seemed to be merely "maintaining" the event, in the absence of any detailed representations of it, as if they hoped that at any minute, the absence at the core would be filled by substance -- or more pictures, anyway.

And yet, I held out hope. I couldn't help thinking that surely, someone out there had managed to capture the decisive moments, the sequence of events that bridged the gap between the Columbia whole, in orbit, and the Columbia's burning fragments. If I only waited a few more minutes, everything would be made apparent. But as Saturday lingered on, this hope began to fade. We didn't have the explosion, all we had were the embers. From the perspective of the news crews, it must have seemed like "bad" television: bad imagery, bad production quality, bad spectacle.

Where was the drama?

This, coupled with the fact that the networks have established an iron law of near constant coverage of such events (they call it "complete" or "special" coverage), made for a potently self-destructive mix. The event was exhausted before it really even got started. The most dreaded word imaginable for the media, the "b" word (as in "boring"), was floating around in my head sometime around 2pm on Saturday. That's not good for ratings.

The news channels, perhaps knowing that their broadcasts were strangely "off," lacking in visual bells and whistles, stumbled around, vainly seeking new home videos, additional graphic representations.

This led to all sorts of tragic-comic weirdness: for a time on February 1, CNN's Miles O'Brien was reduced to using a tiny model of the space shuttle Challenger to reenact some "possible" scenarios of the shuttle's demise. (We know he wasn't holding a representation of the Columbia because, as if the verisimilitude was so absolute that the viewer might forget the object was a mere model and not the thing itself, O'Brien was compelled to confirm to the camera that the illegible letters on the wing spelled "Challenger.") In the absence of a dramatic visual feed to sustain the constant coverage, the story quickly spiraled into absurdity.

Perhaps this is why just a hint of nostalgia for 1986 and the seemingly more profound loss of the Challenger inflected the reportage: the early slips of the tongue (mistakenly referring to the Columbia as the Challenger); the efforts to draw parallels between the deaths of the two crews (the Challenger had Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space; the Columbia had Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space); the archived footage of the spectacular Challenger explosion. It was a strangely reciprocal gesture between past and present, a backward glance to a past filled with meaning in order to invest a shallow present with some depth. The gesture seemed to work for a time. If nothing else, it made you think about how you felt way back when. But it couldn't hold the current broadcasts together because, in the end, this was still a story about the Columbia in 2003.

Just one week later, the Columbia's hold on our imaginations is already fading precipitously. The promise of a spectacularly visual Gulf War II, the heightened threat of an equally spectacular urban terrorist assault in the US, even the comedic melodrama in the UN, all contain vastly more potential energy than the static images of shuttle debris strewn across Texas. It seems certain now that within a few short weeks the news channels will have a war on which to focus. And when it happens, the brief saturation-storm of the Columbia story will only be a memory. The continuing story of the investigation into the causes will undoubtedly be relegated to the back pages of the newspapers while television works the "latest vulnerabilities."

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