It's a question that always comes to the fore when there is saturation coverage of a news event.
And it's hard to find many more saturated than the wall-to-wall extravaganza over the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
MORE: What's next in Malaysia Flight 370 investigation?
To many media critics, the obsessive focus on a single story, particularly as practiced on cable, is a cause for alarm, if not a threat to the republic.
Rem Rieder is a media columnist for USA TODAY.(Photo: USA TODAY)
And in many cases, particularly in the too-frequent instances when that obsessive focus is devoted to something that's merely a middling tabloid saga, the critics are on to something.
But in the case of the missing airliner, I'd cut the media some slack. This is something out of the ordinary. An airplane with 239 passengers on board simply vanishes. In an era of instant gratification, when we are used to knowing everything right away, we are suddenly confronted with not knowing.
Sixteen days. No trace.
It's the kind of story that Ben Bradlee, the great Washington Post editor, would say with his trademark growl had "nothing but readers." Not to mention viewers and unique visitors.
Monday's announcement by Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak that Flight 370 had gone down in a remote area of the Indian Ocean brings no real closure. It's based on satellite data, not physical evidence.
But the episode also showcases the dark side of going all-in. Particularly in the case of CNN.
CNN, the pioneer, round-the-clock cable news network, has a problem. In a very! polarized country, it finds itself with Fox to its right, MSNBC to its left and no clear-cut identity.
It's the mission of Jeff Zucker, the former NBC Universal president brought in to resurrect the ratings-challenged network, to forge one.
It's a challenge without obvious answers. But early on, Zucker saw a way to bring back the network's numbers, if not its stature. CNN went crazy on the cruise ship from hell story. The network was widely lambasted — and its ratings soared. Zucker was as bothered by the naysayers as much as Vladimir Putin is upset by critics of his Crimea adventure.
Co-Pilot Marc Smith looks out as he turns his RAAF AP-3C Orion aircraft at low level in bad weather while searching for missing Malaysia Airways Flight MH370 on Monday off the southwest coast of Perth, Australia.(Photo: Pool photo, Getty Images)
So, a new formula: When you find a story you think will sell, pound it, over and over again, to the exception of pretty much everything else. And that's what CNN did with the missing plane.
Talk about a laser focus. BuzzFeed's Dorsey Shaw, watching so you didn't have to, found that during one stretch on March 12, CNN spent 256 out of 271 broadcast minutes on the plane.
When you are doing that day after day, and when many of those days bring with them no real developments, that's a problem. How do you fill all of that time?
Here's how: Anchor Don Lemon wondered whether "supernatural" forces had shown their hand. There was talk of black holes and zombie planes. Little sister network HLN brought in a psychic to help out. No theory was too crackpot to be ignored. No non- or minor development could be denied the breaking news label.
A better way to cheapen the brand is hard to imagine.! Yet, tra! gically, ratings rose. You think maybe CNN will try this again?
Back in 1997, on a journalism panel, I described the saga of JonBenét Ramsey, the slain 6-year-old beauty pageant queen, as the most "overcovered" story since Reconstruction.
I was quickly upbraided by fellow panelist Don Hewitt, the legendary longtime executive producer of 60 Minutes. It was, he said, the most "overmentioned" story ever. What we had been treated to hardly rose to the level of news "coverage."
What an innocent era that seems today.
Rem Rieder is USA TODAY'S media editor and columnist.
A relative of one of the Chinese passengers aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 collapses in grief after being told of the latest news in Beijing on Monday.(Photo: Ng Han Guan, AP)