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Jewish World Review
April 17, 2008
/ 12 Nissan 5768
News you can (re)use
With so much going on in the world these days, whether locally, nationally or internationally, it's remarkable that the nightly news shows manage to cover it all in just an hour and still squeeze in sports, weather and the latest Britney Spears updates.
I've often wondered how, with all these events to cover, the news programs can afford to dedicate any air time to those perennially occurring stories that, in their sameness, never seem to offer anything of actual news value. You know the stories I'm talking about - footage of the Pennsylvania groundhog either seeing or not seeing his shadow, interviews with people waiting to buy lottery tickets for a $100 million jackpot, footage of slow-moving shoppers being crushed underfoot by the stampeding bargain hunters on the day after Thanksgiving, etc. The list goes on and so, inexplicably, does the coverage.
I remember thinking about how little these stories change last year as I watched a TV reporter interviewing the incoherent, toothless 113-year-old woman who had just become the oldest living person. Rather than bothering to go out and get this footage, I wondered, wouldn't it be easier and less expensive to simply re-air an interview with the previous oldest person or, if that wasn't available, an interview with Keith Richards? Who would know the difference?
That's when I realized I might be on to something. Maybe the network news programs keep showing us stories that recur so frequently precisely because they can run old footage without anyone at home catching on. Take, for example, the occasional story about a bunch of bodies turning up in some otherwise nondescript homeowner's backyard. Is it really necessary for a camera crew to go out to the house in question just to record a neighbor predictably saying that the guy was "a quiet type" who "kept mostly to himself" except for when he was "cranking up the stereo to play what he called 'good body-burying music?'"
Next week I'll be able to test my theory when news reporters predictably tromp out to area post offices to interview the hordes of procrastinators who've waited until the last minute to file their income tax returns. I know I'll be watching closely for telltale signs of recycled footage, such as people in line using older cell phone models, wearing "Frankie Say Relax" t-shirts or telling interviewers they're concerned about the government handling the millions of returns, "what with this whole Y2K crisis and all."
In fact, the practice of repurposing old stories is a long and celebrated news tradition. To cite just one example, legend has it that famed newspaper man William Randolph Heart, upon hearing of the Hindenburg disaster, stopped his top editor from sending a reporter out to the crash scene. "Here, just run this," Hearst allegedly said, handing the editor an old story about the sinking of the Titanic. "Just change 'ship' to 'blimp,' 'Titanic' to 'Hindenberg,' 'iceberg' to 'fireball' and 'North Atlantic Ocean' to 'Lakehurst, New Jersey.'"
Today, with news budgets tighter than ever, the practice of recycling footage will likely increase. Suspicion has already arisen that producers are using new Photoshop technology to take existing video of, say, Paris Hilton being released from prison and replacing the hotel heiress' image with footage of Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Ritchie, Kiefer Sutherland or the latest former child star to finish serving time. This also may explain why the wives of disgraced politicians always appear at their husbands' sides during the ensuing press conferences; since Hillary was in the original source video, dutifully standing beside Bill, news organizations are now forced to drop in images of the current wife, most likely taken from stock footage from a state funeral or some other somber event. It's the only logical explanation.
Why, even President Bush has been getting into the act. While many commentators have criticized the president for his seemingly "detached" approach to governing, the fact is that Bush retired to his Crawford ranch sometime in 2005 and now only returns to the White House for photo opportunities with important visiting guests, such as the French president, the Queen of England or a recently-crowned bass fishing champion. That's why, when the news organizations need to show the president reacting to, say, the latest bad news in Iraq, they just trot out old footage of Bush talking about how "the surge is working," "we're turning the corner" and "the Democrats all hate the troops."
The only problem with all this footage recycling is if the public begins to lose faith in the integrity of the news media. But as usual, the networks are way ahead of us, and already have plenty of stored video of people on the street talking about how much they still trust the network news. I just hope someone had the good sense to screen out anyone wearing a "Frankie Says" t-shirt.
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JWR contributor Malcolm Fleschner is a humor columnist for The DC Examiner. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
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© 2006, Malcolm Fleschner