Like everyone that I know online, I spent most of yesterday evening watching and/or following events in Istanbul and Ankara. And once I got home (my temporary DC home, base for a quick research/writing trip) I turned on CNN and left it on for the rest of the night. Since the First Gulf War, which gave us the arcade novelty of watching bombs fall from the bombs’ point of view — we still haven’t found a way to show it from the victims’ perspective, unfortunately — I’ve thought of CNN as, or, better, subconsciously felt it to be, what one naturally has on in the background when, as an anchor might say, “events are unfolding”. And we don’t get the BBC where we are.
I watched Gulf War I as a thirteen-year-old, so my memory of it is bound to be flawed. But one thing as notable for its presence then as for its absence now is the foreign correspondent, talking over noise in grainy real time or pictured in a still shot while shouting through the phone, “covering” the events unfolding like a messy napkin around them. A certain amount of online commentary last night lamented their absence, and I agree, although not as much as I did before the embarrassment of the “embeds” in Gulf War II. Of course, I imagine they largely shared the political and philosophical biases of their bosses and governments, biases to which I was then oblivious; no one even glancingly familiar with the history of the news since the early modern period should be caught romanticizing it. But one can still learn a great deal, with and against the grain, from biased sources. After all, they’re all we have.
What really makes me miss the correspondents is what has filled the vacuum: nonstop commentary from “here at home”, generally of the most vapid, repetitive, patronizing and pandering kind. (I’m not breaking new ground here; but the impression is fresh.) Correspondents were useful not just because they could stand in the midst of events like so many local weathermen, on the scene proving that rain gets you wet, but because they had some — perhaps hastily gathered, perhaps built up over a lifetime — local knowledge, and thus some insight into or interpretation of what might be going on. “The first draft of history”, someone once said: I’ve always found that line glib, but it makes a kind of sense in this context. They were important not just because they were there, but also because they had skills and experience (and even biases) that enabled them to make something more of their presence than a superficial spectacle. (Again, contrast the “embeds”.)
What most strikes me about the switch to studio commentary, in comparison, isn’t so much the loss of immediacy (social media supply that in plenty, and are beginning to reveal its limitations), or of some imaginary absence of bias, or even of expertise — after all, one can quickly rustle up more talking heads on any given topic than there are minutes in the hour. It’s more to do with the nature and purposes of the commentary itself, which is less and less to interpret events and more and more to broadcast positions. Instead of local insight into cause and effect we have, too much of the time, the dissemination of stances — mostly official stances. And like any form of PR this is less about making sense of events than it is about conveying or purveying impressions of the people speaking, or of the interests and agencies those people represent. To the extent that its engagement is framed around official reactions, mass media is “official” media, essentially unconcerned with explaining things.
I keep going back to one glaring instance of this from last night: the repeated claim that (here I paraphrase) “the US does not deal with countries that have had coups.” What is the meaning of this statement? Is it a prediction? A warning? Advice on how an American audience should feel about Turkey? (Trump didn’t take it, if so.) Whatever it is, two things it is not: first, it is not an attempt to explain or interpret the events going on, and, second, it is not even remotely true. You don’t need to be a historian of Latin America, or the Middle East, or Africa, or Southeast Asia, to know this — though any of those would help; you don’t even have to look back in time (Egypt, anyone?). In fact, the claim that the US does not deal with coup-installed regimes is not merely false, it’s laughably so. But it is, indisputably, the official position of the US government that it cannot support anything it chooses to label a “coup”. So instead of (flawed, biased) attempts to cover and explain events, we have raw video clips interspersed with the broadcasting of official stances. It’s enough to make you turn to history.
 See David F. Schmitz, Thank God They’re On Our Side (University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Schmitz, The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships (Cambridge University Press, 2006).