During the last two weeks of October 1962 I was only three, so I certainly can’t claim to have any memory of the events that have come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mind you like most people I am now familiar with the stand-off between the United States and the USSR that had the recently post-WWII world on tenterhooks, as both parties were readying missiles aimed at the other, the US in Turkey and the Soviets in Cuba. The situation came to a head with the US naval blockade of Cuba and was extinguished when the USSR backed down.
Currently we have another potential problem brewing, once again involving Russia, the USSR having broken up, and the US over the situation in Ukraine. Gone are Kennedy and Khrushchev but presidents Obama and Putin are playing a similar game of chicken, fortunately this time in the form of diplomatic tit-for-tat, sanctions and bravado, at least so far. Hopefully, like the Cuban Crisis this situation won’t escalate into a shooting war.
What I find interesting is how these two confrontations afford us an excellent opportunity to see just how media coverage of world events has changed in 52 years. Or have they? A quick scan of the archives shows that the Cuban Crisis was front page news around the world. Nightly news broadcasts provided information as did radio. News bulletins broke into regular television programming when warranted. In 1962 there were no 24-hour news stations, CNN was just a gleam in Ted Turner’s eye, and of course the Internet was still a few decades from its present ubiquity, therefore much of the angst that was felt by North Americans, and I imagine Russians, may have been attributable to a lack of information. There was a lot of wondering and worrying going on.
But watching the coverage of the uprising in Kiev followed by the wall-to-wall analysis of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 I wonder if people were indeed less informed in 1962. The amount of repeated information is astonishing – when there’s nothing new, just re-run something old seems to be the plan. The number of talking heads giving their take on the disappearance of the plane seems to be infinite. Yet the very few actual known facts remain the same; the rest is essentially filler, hypothesizing. Would people in 1962 have been better off with 24-hour analysis of the Cuban Crisis or would they have been prone to even more panic as panel members ratcheted-up possible doomsday scenarios?
It has always struck me the way CNN can switch from covering one story extensively to breaking a major event and then completely ignore the original story. In late August 2001 CNN was chock-a-block with the story of missing intern Chandra Levy, an alleged paramour of Gary Condit, a Democratic Representative. Where was Chandra? Who saw her last? Were they lovers? The questions and possible answers filled the screen all day, it was all Chandra all the time. Then the attack on the World Trade Center, soon to become known simply as 9/11, occurred and, naturally, that pushed all other items off the news. But completely off the news! No mention was made of the missing intern for months. Can CNN viewers (and I am one myself) not handle more than one thing at a time? The BBC seems to be able to offer extensive coverage of multiple events around the world, yet North American news channels evidently prefer to focus on one thing at a time. The Ukraine and the brewing trouble in Venezuela are on the back burner, but way back.
In terms of hours of coverage there can be no doubt that the modern day viewer is getting much more than in 1962. But whether we are getting more actual ‘news’ or not is debatable.