When ‘Breaking News’ Is Neither Breaking Nor News

“Breaking news” is breaking out all over the land—and all over CNN.

For some time, the champion of billboarding “breaking news” has been (or thought to be) Wolf Blitzer, a CNN anchor. He may well deserve the unofficial title for presenting more purported “breaking news” than any other anchor anywhere—at any time in unrecorded history. For all we know, the true champ may be a broadcaster on Guam. The only Guamanian I know of is Ann Curry, the former co-host of NBC’s “Today” show. (She was born on Guam. Or in Guam.)

Now another CNN anchor is challenging Blitzer for the title of world champ of “breaking news”—which often is not genuine breaking news but merely news hyped as “breaking.” The challenger is Erin Burnett, who anchors the 7 p.m. ET show, “OutFront.” On Jan. 16, she opened her program by using breaking twice, once for “breaking news,” once for “breaking details.” Breaking details? Never heard that one before.

Soon Burnett said, “And more breaking news, The wife of the Orlando nightclub shooter, arrested.” That, though, was only a headline. Shortly, she said, “And next, the [the?] breaking news, the wife of the Orlando nightclub gunman who killed 49 people, she is under arrest tonight.” Yes, that construction is ungrammatical. Then, 44 minutes into her newscast, Burnett said, “Breaking news: the widow of the Orlando nightclub shooter [a few minutes earlier, Burnett had called her his wife] now facing charges connected to the terror attack.” Finally, at 7:45 p.m., 45 minutes into her 7 p.m. newscast, she delivered the purported breaking news. But the story was far from breaking: the AP had run news of the arrest at 8 a.m. ET. Which means Burnett called that news breaking almost 12 hours after the AP reported it.

Yes, 12 hours.

More of her “breaking news” was not breaking. On Jan. 19, at 7:40 p.m., she said, “Breaking news tonight, President Obama commuting [sounds as if he was signing the papers at that very moment] 330 prison sentences, the most [most what?] ever granted by a president in a single day. It [What does it refer to?] comes, of course, on his last full day in office.”

Although Burnett called that news breaking, the AP had tweeted news of the commutations at 11:46 a.m. ET—seven hours before Burnett called the news breaking.

On Jan. 26, Burnett said, right at the top of her 7 p.m. newscast, “Breaking news, Trump versus Mexico. The meeting between [of] the two leaders canceled.” Big news, all right, but it didn’t break at 7 p.m.; it was reported by CNN itself at noon, seven hours earlier. And three hours before that, at 8:56 a.m., the AP tweeted word of the Mexican president’s cancelation of his trip to Washington. That tweet went out 10 hours before Burnett called it “breaking news.”

As a co-anchor of CNN’s mid-day show, John Berman said at 11 a.m., Jan. 26, “We have breaking news all over the place.” True. The next day, Berman, sitting in for Anderson Cooper, said at 8 p.m. “We do have breaking news: Details of President Trump’s executive action on refugees….” Breaking news?

“We do have“? Odd. More than nine hours earlier, at 10:53 a.m., the AP had tweeted the news. A few minutes after Berman’s opening, he said, “No shortage of breaking news.” That’s what the man said. Two days later, I was watching CNN again, and a house ad came up. “CNN,” said an actor solemnly, “the most trusted name in news.” Not by me.


© Mervin Block 2017

Mervin Block is the author of Writing Broadcast News Shorter, Sharper, Stronger: A Professional Handbook.


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