The dreary wait for the latest news about Osama bin Laden is starting to feel almost normal--at least to anyone tuning in to the 24-hour television news channels.
MSNBC's news crawl late Thursday night highlighted a story out of Gainesville, Fla., where police had followed a trail of Skittles wrappers to three boys suspected of stealing candy. The crawl also had an item on the "Yule Log," a two-hour shot of a burning log on New York's WPIX-TV that drew more viewers than any other program on Christmas morning.
While much of the country is on holiday, many TV news networks are trying to cover a war that has temporarily hit a plateau just as exhausted, far-flung crews try to squeeze in a few weeks of vacation.
"People obviously have been working extremely hard since Sept. 11, so we're doing our best to give people some time to rest and get ready for even more news," said Jeff Schneider, a spokesman for ABC News.
That's a strategy other TV news operations are using as well. After 12 weeks in the war zone, MSNBC's Ashleigh Banfield has come home for Christmas. In the meantime, correspondents from NBC, the cable news network's partner, are filing for both channels from Afghanistan.
The combination of overworked news organizations, the frustrating search for Bin Laden and an end to much of the fighting has made for stale watching the last few weeks, said Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a center for journalism studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"I'm seeing mostly confusion. I'm seeing a lack of coherence in the overall lack of coverage," Clark said.
Even as network executives insist, as one did Friday, that "war takes no holidays," at least one network seems to have lowered its expectations for a New Year's discovery of the terrorist mastermind.
Toning Down the On-Screen Banners
CNN dropped two of its banners, "Hunt for Bin Laden" and "Is Bin Laden Trapped?" Stripped across the screen Friday was the headline "Live From Afghanistan."
The channel also rejiggered its anchor staff last week, placing Catherine Callaway at the midday broadcast desk and sending Bill Hemmer to cover Christmas in Afghanistan. Hemmer is due back at his anchor chair in Atlanta by mid-January, according to CNN spokesman Matthew Furman.
Although the network is shifting some assignments, Furman said, "We really don't have a skeletal staff."
Foreign correspondents for the newest competitor in the cable news market, Fox News Channel, are on their second rotation, with the network adhering to a fairly strict four-week tour of duty.
"It's no bed of roses over there," said Dennis Murray, executive producer of Fox's daytime programming. "There's no place where we pulled out. We just let some on-air people here take some time off and let some weekend people here fill in or work extra hours."
Poynter's Clark notes that the focus in broadcast news has clearly shifted from finding Bin Laden to examining the Taliban, the Palestinian issue and the increasing hostilities between Pakistan and India.
"These are very, very important stories and, in spite of the commitment of resources to cover them, I think that we may be seeing the weaknesses that have developed over the past few years from retreating from our foreign coverage and not developing a good farm system of reporters who know what they're doing," Clark said.
"Instead, we have to choose between the lady with the glasses and the guy with the mustache," he said, referring to the bespectacled Banfield and Fox's Geraldo Rivera, both of whom were reporting from Afghanistan.