At 10:49 a.m. on Sept. 11, 21 minutes after the North Tower of the World Trade Center began to collapse, Fox News launched a news ticker—a ribbon of all-caps text along the bottom of the screen made up of headlines from scenes occurring off camera, in rural Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon, which indicated that the imagery shown was not a horrible accident. At 11:01, CNN had followed suit, and MSNBC got a crawl going by 2 p.m. that day.
The feature was known to viewers. The news ticker or crawl had occasionally cropped up on television news to broadcast emergency weather updates, the scores of sports games not important enough to televise and the three-letter codes and symbols that, to some, translate to financial gain and loss.
In itself, the ticker was an appropriate addition to the Sept. 11 broadcast—it signified the magnitude of the event and the nature of its news—breaking, developing, unfolding. That day, the content of the news ticker reinforced the above-the-fold story.
Every news channel—and many non-news channels—broadcast short clips of video footage in loops that were transfixing until they became nauseating. In lieu of watching the sequence of events again—no more believable for how many times it’d been viewed—the crawl was a place to avert one’s eyes without interrupting the consumption of news. It informed and it soothed.
The thing is, it never went away. None of the channels have turned off their emergency news ticker along the bottom of the screen. Cable news wears the crawl like a politician wears a flag pin.
This new world, in which American citizens and values are under constant threat of attack, is preferable to the old one in the cable news business. In 2001, CNN was reportedly already developing the technology for a constant news ticker. When news of the terrorist attacks struck, CNN simply rolled it out early. MSNBC briefly removed the ticker in 2002, but when no other networks followed suit, it was revived, according to the Georgetown master’s thesis of Michael Keefe-Feldman.
Some hypothesize that the news crawl had been a strategy to replicate the experience of reading the news online—which was quickly becoming the primary medium for news consumption among the advertiser-beloved 25-54-year-old demographic.
If this is true, the ticker experiment has been a failure. This year, the Internet surpassed television as the number one news source for people under 30. For the demographic loyal to cable news, the crawl is a distraction: outside of a state of emergency, the ticker displays news unrelated to that which is being broadcast by the journalists, competing for the viewer’s attention. In 2003, Newsday reported on online petitions hundreds had signed asking the stations to take it down.
Indeed, the widgets adorning a cable news broadcast threaten to cannibalize the primacy of the television’s breaking news authority. Like spending a date scrolling one’s iPhone under the table, the crawl’s messages are in competition with the ones coming out of anchor’s mouth. It disintegrates the intimacy that bonds viewers to their anchor—the relationship that dictates to whom they turn in moments of chaos and crisis. In 2007, Eric Ober, a CBS News executive in the ’90s, said that distracting viewers from the message the anchor is trying to convey is “the worst thing you can do on a TV screen.”