News as Spectacle: The Political Economy and Aesthetics of 24/7 News

James Compton


On the surface, it would appear that large-scale media spectacles based on celebrities, such as the Monica Lewinsky scandal or the mourning of Princess Diana, have little in common with the 1991 Gulf War or the 2001 September 11th terrorist attacks in the United States. The former are easily dismissed as tabloid excess, while the latter constitute what journalists like to call hard news stories par excellence. It doesn't get more serious than war and terror. Media coverage of illicit sex and tabloid tragedy are widely regarded as the nadir of professional journalism. War and the threat of terror on the other hand, provide the news media with opportunities to redeem themselves and reproduce the legitimising narrative of independent truth-seekers. I wish to complicate this separation. I argue, instead, that the reporting of hard news and the tabloid variety share a commonality: both are constitutive of, and are constructed by, the economic competition among 24-hour news organizations, which include both broadcast and online organizations.

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