Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Media We Have.

Devilstower (DKos): The Disaster Disaster

The BBC television show Top Gear is well known for showcasing beautiful examples of automotive art alongside classic bits of British buffoonery. Any given week is likely to feature cars that cost more than most homes being whipped around a track, followed by some adventure that may include shooting an old Reliant Robin into the air or turning a Toyota pickup into a boat. It's a formula that's made Top Gear consistently one of the most popular programs in the world. But it's not exactly the place you turn for the news.

So when, during the 2007 season, Top Gear set one of their episodes in the southern United States, I wasn't expecting to learn much more than how the hosts of the show would choose to get themselves in trouble that week. I wasn't disappointed on that front, as they managed to get stones thrown at them in a small Alabama town after painting "Man-love rules" on one of their vehicles. I was surprised by what happened next.

As the show rolled into the New Orleans region, the camera revealed block after block of devastation. Even the hosts of the show appeared to be in shock as the scale of Katrina's impact on the region became clear. For miles there was not one open store, not one building undamaged, not one house without shattered windows and sagging walls. On and on they went, with things becoming progressively worse. It was like a drive through the tiers of hell, and if there were attempts to repair the damage, they were invisible. The hosts dropped their usual banter for what was clearly a mixture of surprise and disgust at how little the United States had done to help the stricken area.

The most surprising thing was that, not only was the area still in rubble two years after the storm hit, the visit from a BBC entertainment program did a better, more hard-hitting job of revealing what had happened than any program in the US from the time of Katrina till now. That evening was the first time I had a real sense of just how huge and all pervasive the damage had been. It was certainly the first glimpse I'd seen of just how utterly inadequate was the government's response. Heck of a job, Brownie. Heck of a job, all of us.

And heck of a job, US news media, for not coming close to showing what was really happening in one of America's great cities.

It not as if our three 24 hour news networks and the dozens of news programs on the broadcast channels didn't cover Katrina. They devoted hundreds, if not thousands of hours to the coverage. The only thing is that the coverage was focused on a very few areas -- the people trapped inside the Superdome, helicopters rescuing people from rooftops, aerial shots of people breaking into supermarkets in a search for food and water, interviews with local, state and federal officials, George W. Bush back-lit by a battalion of generators brought in just for his speech. Those features were covered over, and over, and over again, with the obligatory discussion by dozens of regular pundits and hundreds of guests. After the immediate effects of the storm had passed, occasional New Orleans coverage continued -- mostly in the form of showing FEMA trailers parked in sodden yards, volunteers unloading food from trucks, and more speeches from officials.

None of those shows came close to showing the width and breadth of the damage and the picayune nature of the response. If the media had done a better (and by this I mean much better job) of showing the nation what had really happened to the Gulf coast region, there might have been a lot less resentment in some quarters toward the amount of aid that was required, there might have been a lot more attention paid to seeing that the real problems were addressed, there might have been a lot less tendency to treat New Orleans like a political petri dish ready for experimentation. But that didn't happen. What America saw was a few locations, a little looting, a lot of talking heads. TV Katrina was a disaster in a jar -- shrunken not just to fit our screens, but to fit pre-composed narratives and scripted bits of drama.

The same thing can be said of the coverage in Iraq. Despite the celebrated program of "embedding" reporters to provide "unprecedented" access to events as they happened, what America saw of the war was not just sanitized beyond recognition, it was reduced, scaled back, turned into repeat clips of Humvees roaring past and statues being dragged to the ground. The media fumbled back and forth, trying to find the right plotline for Iraq, and ultimately shredded the script and consigned the whole series to token coverage. The best Iraq footage as far as the networks were concerned was no Iraq footage at all -- just conversations with "experts" who met the requirement for square-jaws and steely-eyed resolve.

Any American who has traveled outside the US in the last few years and caught a glimpse of the war in foreign coverage is bound to feel as if they've been sucker punched. Leveled towns, blocks of smoldering ruins, walls that cut through cities, and everywhere ordinary families screaming and crying at their loss. Streets packed with people who are tired, dirty, and beaten. It's like a view from another world. Who are these people? What are these places? What are they doing in our war?

But really, all of this shouldn't be surprising. Because the United States no longer boasts a television news media. That's been replaced with entertainment programs. Newsy programming. Saying that watching the Daily Show gives you a better glimpse of what's really happening in the world may be funny, until it's true.

Newsy programming is what you get when there are no reporters, only anchors -- anchors that almost uniformly have no background in journalism. It's what you get when the first qualification on your network is a high-def friendly complexion. On newsy programming, you don't have reporters who stay on the scene for days, you have aerial cameras and helicopters to bring your anchor in for some well-framed views in front of the most scenic areas. Everything else can be done back in the office with enough loops and some snazzy sound effects.

Newsy programming is great at spectacle, at stories that lack scope but make up for it in stupid. They'd love to order up a season worth of balloon boy. Newsy programming also likes stories where almost nothing is known and everything is open to interpretation. Missing white girl isn't the staple of newsy programming because it's interesting. It's a regular series because they know how it goes. Those scripts are written. The emotions have already been practiced. The cross-program interactive synergy is known down to the product placement. Missing white girl has a theme song.

What newsy programming doesn't cover is disaster. Disasters are big, messy, always in transition. Disasters don't stay neatly in frame.

When you have a smashed oil rig under a mile of water and ripped-open pipes spewing unknown quantities into the Gulf, news programs might question the statements coming from the companies that created the issue.

A news program might question why BP has been restricting the video recordings that could be used to get an accurate estimate of the scale of this disaster.

A news program might wonder why both BP and the government have consistently underestimated the flow and only nudged up their numbers when confronted by irrefutable evidence collected by independent sources.

A news program might question BP on why it has stopped providing updates on the rate of flow and refuses to answer questions about the size of the total loss.

A news program might stop repeating numbers that have turned out to be false over and over, and instead work toward uncovering the true scale of what's happening.

A news program might investigate the truth behind insistence that the US can't meet its energy needs without more deep water drilling.

But we don't have news programs. We only have newsy programs. So they'll continue to interview "experts" who tsk over this "unfortunate accident" and assure us that this isn't a big problem. In fact, they'll use the same experts who they talked when the "debate" over drilling happened last time. It's easier that way. Our newsy networks will repeat what they're told, repeat the corporate line on our need for offshore oil, and provide dutiful coverage for whatever top hat-dome-pipe BP is lowering into the sea today. Now and then they might pause to shake their heads over the completely uniformed numbers circulating on the web, numbers that have most definitely not been provided right from the mouths of the people responsible for this disaster.

But hey, they will keep some cameras poised to pick up a dead sea turtle or two, because baby, that's spectacle.

If you want to get an idea of the real scale of what's happening, the real cost to the Gulf both in the long and short term, the real risk we take by allowing this type of drilling or the real options for future development... well, I hear there are still some cheap tickets overseas. Why not plan for a few days somewhere where they still show news on TV? Or you could wait until some imported comedy show provides a little insight. That 2012 episode where The Peep Show stars frolic on the black sands of Florida? Hilarious.

In the meantime, there are plenty of pundits ready to fill some airtime, and I hear they've put new carpet in the situation room. Now that's news.

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