Whither the Ticker?

By Alex Weprin 

In the latest issue, Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik goes there, and argues that the cable news channels should abandon the news ticker at the bottom of the screens.

The ticker has become a permanent fixture on the news channels after September 11, 2001, though as Poniewozik notes, CNN has replaced it with a slightly less urgent “flipper” and all of the channels have experimented with removing it during certain programs.

To remove the ticker, after all, would be to say life had gone back to normal, to reject the national shibboleth that everything had changed. Who wanted to be the first to do that? (It would be months before news networks even began to gradually remove the American flags they had posted in their screen corners.) In more practical terms, a sense of crisis is good business for TV news. And producers found the ticker to be useful, a way to give viewers a sense that they were getting the most info in the least time and a place to shunt the headlines during the opinion shows that increasingly dominated cable post-9/11…

Right after 9/11, in other words, the ticker was a way of offering raw news; in the years afterward, it became a symbol of the refusal to filter that news. Like a stuck car alarm, it stopped being an alert to any particular urgency and became a source of constant, low-level unease.

And it was a microcosm of the hyperagitated news culture in general. The nine years that followed 9/11 were years of genuinely big headlines: Iraq, Katrina, Lehman Brothers. Yet it was sometimes hard to distinguish truly monumental events from ordinary news amplified by monumental technology. Every natural disaster, it seemed, was the worst ever, every potential pandemic the most deadly, every financial crisis the most dire, every terrorism alert the scariest, every political division the deepest and most acrimonious.

What do you think? Should the ticker be reserved for truly breaking news? Or has it become a useful thing for TV news viewers to have? Let us know in the comments.

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