On January 15th, 2009, US Airway Flight 1549, a large commercial aircraft carrying 155 passengers, struck a flight of geese and lost power, necessitating a water landing in the Hudson River, which was done successfully, with all passengers promptly evacuated. There were no serious injuries. The captain and crew were widely praised for their heroic skill in emergency circumstances. The fact that the accident was brought to a close with no fatalities was also notable because it had been several years since a US commercial flight had crashed with fatalities. In fact, the last crash of a large commercial aircraft had been the November 12, 2001 crash of a plane in Queens, New York. But shortly after this incident, on February 12, 2009 a commuter flight from New Jersey to Buffalo, New York crashed, killing all 48 passengers.
I direct this short synopsis towards the reader, wondering what type of memory or reaction will be generated. There may be some confusion based on the title of this write-up, but the connection will be made clear soon, if it is not already. The reader probably remembers the crash in the Hudson, and can recall the pictures. They probably remember reading about the Buffalo crash, and their memories might even stretch back to the November 2001 crashes, which were notable at the time because coming soon after 9/11, there was some fear and suspicion that they were further attacks. But in all these cases, the events mentioned have probably slipped the reader's conscious thought process. There is perhaps an essay about long term memory in here, but instead, what I am thinking of is the transient nature of the news cycle, the process in which a piece of news occurs, is covered at various levels of depth, and then slowly fades from the media.
The typical news item has a lifespan that could be described in the following phases. First, it occurs as a breaking story, with broadcast and computer media giving an update, sometimes only a paragraph long. As soon as reporters can reach the scene, the first full reports are given. This will probably happen in the day that the story breaks. By the next day, if the story is still big enough, more reports will be given, perhaps providing some analysis or background to the events. Then, over the next few days, the item is discussed, with commentators and pundits putting in opinions on it. There will also be some meta-analysis of the item, as the news media talks about how the news media and the public have reacted to the item. If members of the government comment on it, that can become another part of the story. By the end of the first week, the initial event has perhaps faded away, and what is being covered is perhaps the public response to the government reaction to the incident. And all of these layers together go into the weekly newsmagazines. But at a certain point, there is no more to be said about the story, and other more pressing items clamor for attention.
Of course, not every news item follows this trajectory. For example, pieces of legislation or other government businesses often skip the phase of being "breaking news". And often stories dawdly and carry on in the recursive phases beyond their initial importance. Michael Steele making a speech is not important. Michael Steele making a speech where he criticizes Rush Limbaugh, and then later on apologizes to him, is important. Also, many (perhaps most) news stories don't occur in a vacuum, but are instead ripples in larger news cycles. Washington Mutual failing would have been a big story for a week, perhaps two. Washington Mutual failing along with the largest banks in the country is part of a news cycle that has stretched out for almost a year now.
The media could be criticized by catering to people's short attention spans, but it is called "news" for a reason. All of the information we need to know about a plane crash-landing in the Hudson River is already known to us, and there is no further information to be presented. What should be remembered however, is that whatever news item is going on right now may not be important in a few weeks or a few months, and may not even be remembered in a few months or a few years. I am writing this in May of 2008, and for people who are reading this right now, you probably know exactly what Tea Parties, Swine Flu are, and who Arlen Specter is. For those reading this in the coming months or years, your reaction may be... "oh yeah, I remember...". The things that seem very important might not actually be things that change people's way of thinking. It can only be told years after.
Other than "where are they now" and other nostalgia pieces, some items truly escape the news cycle. One of these is items that, despite not having a long cycle themselves, generally change people's perceptions of events. Any single suicide bombing in Israel in the earlier part of this decade didn't last more than a few days in American consciousness, but they added up, and put the Palestinian conflict into the forefront of people's minds. People who follow the news today might not even remember that during the 1980s and some of the 1990s, Israel and Palestine were not quite as crucial as they are today, at times being just another Northern Ireland (which has disappeared from some people's consciousness). Some items in the news cycle have enough repetition that they remind people that something is going on, but don't bring it to the forefront. The civil war in Somalia, which has been going on for years but escalated in 2006, reminded people of the region, but not enough to become a top news story. People were briefly reminded of Somalia's travails earlier this year, with the dramatic stories of piracy in the area, but it seems that the stories are neither connected in the public mind, nor dramatic enough to turn focus to the area. But there are some news stories that enter public consciousness in a large way, that are both dramatic and momentous enough to shape not just the media, but the public consciousness.
Over the past ten years, for an American, there are probably two or three stories that stick in the public mind. 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina would be the two I would name foremost. The Iraq War comes behind this, and the campaign and presidency of Barack Obama could arguably be included fourth. 9/11 and Katrina were both dramatic events, coming out of seemingly nowhere, with unforgettable imagery. They also permanently changed people's perceptions not just of the world, but of their day-to-day life. 9-11 changed people's minds to where fear of terrorist attack lost its theoretical quality. Katrina (I believe) made climate change a much more mainstream issue. Both of these events changed people's feelings about oil and its true costs. Compared to these stories, very little else in the decade has effected people at so many different levels. Of course, I am not claiming that the attention paid to these events is totally in proportion to their actual effects. The destruction of the World Trade Center fixed foreign terrorism as a threat to Americans in a way that the Oklahoma City Bombing never put domestic terrorism in the forefront of people's minds, a disparity that I don't think is directly related to the body count or financial costs associated with the attacks.
Another reason that I write this is it is not just the general public that follows the vagaries of the news cycle. The educated public and policy makers in the government have the same habits of putting events out of focus. One of the stimuli for me writing this was reading Noung's superbly researched writeups on middle east politics, especially on The Sons of Iraq and Iran, Israel and the Arabs. Not having anywhere near his handle on all of the facts and the theories on the area, I still think that the portrait he draws, while being true at the time, and being a plausible enough future, could change at any time. If a new news cycle comes about, most of what is going on now will be forgotten, by the public and by the leadership of various countries and factions. If a skirmish escalates into a major battle in Kashmir; if a faction of Wahhabi extremists tries to, or does, assassinate any of the Iranian leadership; if Turkey invades Kurdistan; or if the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government go into full civil war---if any of these things, or about a half dozen others were to happen, most of what we know about the Middle East will be forgotten. And that is just in the Middle East, there are dozens of hypothetical situations around the world that will eclipse what we have learned from the last decade or so of news cycles. It isn't a matter of "we've always been at war with Eastasia", but a matter of things changing, and the public and policy makers being unable to keep up with all the events around them, particularly in the proper context.
I myself am a news junkie, reading google news every morning when I wake up, and checking it throughout the day. I like to keep up on stories, and realize why stories are considered to be important. But I also try to make a habit of thinking "Will this news story still be remembered, or discussed a month or a year from now?" and "Does this news story reflect long term trends about the world we live in? How will this actually effect people?" Doing this, I think, allows me to escape the hype and manipulation that I could be subject to.