On Tuesday, April 11, Press Secretary Sean Spicer mistakenly claimed that, in response to the chemical attack in Syria, not even Adolf Hitler used chemical weapons against people during the Holocaust.
The point was to drive home the notion that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who was suggested as to have ordered the attack, was monstrous for using chemical weapons. Spicer was given the chance to recant and clarify his statements, which he did sloppily and called concentration camps “Holocaust centers.” His statement is false: gas chambers were used to kill Jews (the exact number of dead is estimated in the six millions). In the following minutes, hours and days, Spicer’s malapropism was dissected endlessly. He has since apologized.
In 1980 CNN, the first 24-hour news station, superseded previous models of “nightly news.” With the advent of a continuous news cycle came the need to not only fill the empty hours between breaking stories and crises, but also compete with other cable news outlets. The negative space between reporting led to expert analysis, panelist commentary and soft-news pieces. That model, the culture of commentary, has become so prevalent in the Internet age that continuous news access leads to focus and dissection of the same incident, over and over again. That excessiveness is to the detriment of coverage in other areas.
And while this has been going on, major media outlets do not cover news out of Russia, that more than 100 allegedly gay men have disappeared in Chechnya and according to a Russian newspaper, local authorities are behind it. At least three men have been killed, according to the paper, which released the story on the fourth of April.
And since then, at the time of research, the New York Times has written one article about the kidnappings. The Washington Post has written two. The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and Fox News have not covered it at all. But in the days since Spicer’s mistake, there has been a flurry of activity and articles. Four from the New York Times, 14 from the Washington Post (just on the first search page), four from the Wall Street Journal, one from Fox News and four from the Los Angeles Times. This does not include the hours of screentime dedicated to covering Spicer. All articles took a similar approach to describing the event, and later articles reframed the incident with various angles.
And while major news stations have focused on the salacious scandal of Spicer, smaller outlets like BuzzFeed, TheSkimm, and Teen Vogue, as well as international media like the BBC and The Independent have covered the disappearances.
The independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta covered the incidents in Chechnya (in Russia, most media is either associated with or owned by the Kremlin, the central power authority). According to the paper, at least 100 men have disappeared over the last few weeks. When some return, they are badly beaten. Three have died from their injuries. According to Novaya Gazeta, the men are arrested by local authorities who then look through their phones for condemning evidence. These “honor killings” have apparently been under the authority of Chechen provincial leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Through spokesman Alvi Karimov, Kadyrov denied the allegations, saying, “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic. If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.” The Chechen Republic is a conservative Muslim society, where homosexuality is taboo.
Humanitarian groups, like the Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Campaign have called for Russian authorities to recognize these attacks and for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to discuss the kidnappings while in Russia.
It’s highly possible that the reason no new articles have been written about these kidnappings is because there is no new information. However, the fact that, in an age of unprecedented access and information, there can be fourteen articles about a linguistic misstep but one article about the potential systematic killing of queer people is startling. And not just startling, but dangerous.
The 24-hour news cycle breeds an environment of rapid competition. News stations want to keep the attention of their audiences, and to do that, they narrow in on the daily foibles of the Trump administration. They host panels to discuss what Trump meant by his wiretapping claims, Spicer’s comments about the Holocaust, or Kellyanne Conway’s infamous “alternative facts.”
In a video discussing political satire, Vox’s Carlos Maza said of the wiretapping claims, “[Major news networks] correctly reported that Trump’s claims were false but then went on to spend segment after segment after segment hosting debates about it…They spent hours fixating on whether there might be evidence at some point down the road maybe that shows Trump wasn’t just making it up.”
The problem, Maza asserts, isn’t that the news stations are inaccurate, but they take “bullshit way too seriously.” These debates serve no purpose but to fill air time, and actually, according to studies, hurt the audience’s ability to identify falsehoods. In other words, saying the same “bullshit” enough times confuses consumers into believing it’s viable.
Maza’s solution is to cover the news the way political satirists like Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah and Seth Meyers do—recognize the bullshit for what it is, and move on to cover actual news. Because while major news outlets spend hours going over the same small blunders, real news slips through the cracks.