How I Kept Tabs on the Boston Saga, One Absurdly Brief 'Push Notification' at a Time

My iPhone has been making lots of those familiar “buh-link!” noises lately, the ones that denote new messages. However, I knew I wasn’t getting loads of friendly notes from friends; instead, these were urgent news reminders, courtesy of push notifications through my CNN, NBC News and The New York Times apps, each chock full of news about unfolding events in Boston, Texas and elsewhere.

Well…perhaps “chock full” is an exaggeration. These notifications are swift, one-sentence headline summaries of newsbreaks as they happen. At about 100 characters-with spaces-at most, they make Tweets seem like essays, and appear to be the next step in our societal squeezing of information down to abbreviated bits. They’re perfect for folks too busy to wait for an entire TV screen crawl to finish scrolling.

In fact, they’re perfect for lots of things. I was on the go Thursday night, and nowhere near a TV, and these alerts were my umbilical tie to events as they evolved. I left the house and NBC News was writing to say, “MIT police officer fatally shot on campus in Cambridge, Mass., authorities say.” Not long afterwards, they wrote, “National Guard, FBI on scene following gunfire in Boston suburb of Watertown.”

Of course, being extensions of news organizations competing to out-scoop rivals, the pushes sometimes offer judgments that leave one wondering what the facts really are. CNN wrote at one point that, “Marathon attack suspect killed overnight is thought to have had explosives on his body, officials say.” Not long afterwards, NBC News wrote that, “Authorities take unidentified person into custody as manhunt for second bomber continues.” So…who was this unidentified person? Was this supposed to be the first bomber who was not really dead? It left me wondering if these were news reports or lines from some upcoming Nicolas Cage-Sylvester Stallone movie.

One important thing these little whispery reports don’t do is correct themselves when they’re wrong. CNN sent out an alert the day after the marathon with John King’s claim that a suspect had been found. Yes, this led me to turn on CNN to get confirmation, only to discover later that the claims were false, instantly painting the venerable news organization as the proverbial network who cried, “Wolf! I have exclusive information from law enforcement officials!” This, of course, led me to trust those notifications less.

Because, after all, what are they really but attempts to get you to tune in, to take that next step? With all of 75 characters, a story can’t be fully told; it can only titillate. Granted, there can be a comfort in that: Given all the awful horrors of this at-times unendurable story, the pushes could simply be used to follow the skeletal facts without having to view disturbing images again and again. The notifications filter things down to their utter basics. Could things get shorter than this?

Hopefully not. At times, even something short requires a good edit, and a bit more information. I was left to scratch my head when NBC News wrote this morning-in all of 73 characters with spaces-to say, “Uncle of Boston bomb suspects: ‘What I think was behind it: Being losers.’”

I’ve always been fascinated by Buckminster Fuller’s notion about doing “more and more with less and less.” And these alerts are perfect for huge billboard bits of info along the lines of “Cardinals choose new Pope.” But a story like what unfolded this week in Boston requires time, facts, subtlety and pathos. If these ever-shrinking alerts are the wave of the future, they shouldn’t push the envelope of space so much that they lose all meaning. It can be a little long, people. I promise you: 150 or so characters won’t put us to sleep.

Of course, given the way this particular narrative unfolded, some news at any size would always be welcome, as in this alert that went out Friday night: “Five days of terror are over after second bombing suspect taken into custody alive.”

Robert Edelstein

Rob has written for Broadcasting+Cable since 2006, starting with his work on the magazine’s award-winning 75th-anniversary issue. He was born a few blocks away from Yankee Stadium … so of course he’s published three books on NASCAR, most notably, Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner. He’s currently the special projects editor at TV Guide Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post and his origami art has been in The Wall Street Journal. He lives with his family in New Jersey and is writing a novel about the Wild West.