CNN, enjoying a boost in ratings thanks to the public fascination with the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, has chosen to run with it and sharply limit coverage of other stories.
This is not the first time a single incident has overtaken all other events on the cable news channel. Invasions and terrorist acts, monumental storms and political scandals have caused CNN to push everything else aside in the past. What is different about this story is that there are no scenes of disaster to show, no military convoys to follow, no shameful confessions to broadcast, little actual news to report.
The basic facts have been known for days. A flight bound for Beijing with 239 passengers on board took off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8. After taking an unscheduled left turn, the airplane flew silently for several more hours and then disappeared. Other than details of the search effort, the fumbling response of the Malaysian government and the anguish of families wanting to know what happened to loved ones on the flight, additional facts have been scarce.
As a result, CNN has devoted many long hours to pure speculation. Ranks of experts have appeared on camera spinning theories about what might have happened. Perhaps there was an in-flight emergency. Maybe the pilots in the cockpit of the Boeing 777 were bent on a horrific suicide. It could have been a terrorist act. Or maybe this was some kind of elaborate heist. Instead of crashing into the sea, the airplane could have landed on some remote airstrip in Pakistan. Or in Iran. Or on a tropical island, like Gilligan and the Skipper.
All the chatter has covered just about every possible scenario, including the supernatural and extraterrestrial. Maybe the flight slipped into an Asian version of the Bermuda Triangle. Maybe little green men snatched it and took it to another galaxy as a souvenir of their trip to Earth.
For a big share of TV viewers, all this speculation seems to be excellent entertainment. Whether it is actually news is another question – one that does not seem to trouble CNN executives and producers who are enjoying the ride on the big ratings wave. The question they may be starting to ponder, though, is how long they can keep this going if there are no new revelations and no climax to the story.
CNN may need to find a convenient exit. It would really help if another killer storm swept up the East Coast or if Vladimir Putin sent tanks rolling toward Kiev. Heck, it might even be enough if Justin Bieber distracted the news audience by throwing more eggs at his neighbor's house. Anything less – say, the endless gridlock in Congress or Chris Christie's imploding presidential hopes – is not going to keep all those viewers from drifting back to "Duck Dynasty" or reruns of "Naked and Afraid" or wherever it is they go when the news is merely the news.