Why the Networks Crave a Crisis

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The "h" word began cropping up on cable yesterday. "Hostage" is one of the most loaded words in the American political lexicon. Using it is like throwing a grenade in any discussion, and those who do tend to be provocateurs — a species that looks at any dangerous situation as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement.

In the age of 24-hour news, round-the-clock cable stations and the Internet, international diplomacy becomes a far trickier proposition. I'm sure Colin Powell envies the days of carrier-pigeon diplomacy, when negotiators had days or weeks to ponder the nuances of a single sentence.

I don't think I'm divulging a great secret by telling you that there are news producers in Washington, New York and New Jersey who are desperately hoping that the 24 crew members don't come home any time soon. They have their fingers crossed that a diplomatic imbroglio blossoms into a full-scale "hostage crisis" — "crisis" being another inflammatory journalistic cliché that news producers dearly love.

After all, it was the Iranian "hostage crisis" that in many ways gave birth to our modern 24-hour media culture. That crisis caused the networks to break the boundaries of news coverage and start a show called "America Held Hostage," hosted by a fellow named Ted Koppel, which eventually turned into "Nightline." Until then, you couldn't get international news at that hour — you got Johnny or an old movie. News was segregated into early evening or morning ghettos — which kept it under control.

Today, the only reliable ratings spike for CNN, MSNBC and FOX is a continuing saga — à la Monica or O.J. or Elian — which is why network execs won't be sad if the fliers have an extended holiday in the East. They will be able to have their fancy graphics and chirons; their running heds, like MSNBC's "U.S-China Showdown," or Fox's "U.S.-China STANDOFF' (yes, it's all-caps); their hot-headed guests, like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (who called the fliers "hostages held by a hostile power" — nice alliteration, Dana!), and opportunities for young and pretty anchors to become sage Ted Koppels. They've already started using the obligatory crisis theme music.

All of which doesn't help the situation one bit. The cable networks' and the Internet's insatiable hunger for news only serves to create many more opportunities for danger. The equation is very simple: The more chances you have to comment on the situation, the more chances you have to put your foot in your mouth.

George W. take note.

And by the way, the only word politicians fear more than "hostage" is "apology," but that's a whole other story.