Since a 7.0 earthquake reduced Port-au Prince, Haiti (and its environs) to a moonscape on Tuesday, January 12, TV news media of all stripes have been showing us the destruction, horror, death, devastation, and growing desperation going on there 24/7. It’s at times like this that TV news is at it’s best when it’s good, and at its most insidious when it’s not, and we’ve had some of both this week.
CNN gets huge points for getting several of its key people on the ground virtually in nano-seconds and giving the world a very clear picture of what’s happening in Haiti. It has also served as a primary outlet for important news and information about rescue plans and activities, and helping people learn how to locate loved ones and to contribute to aid and recovery efforts.
Essentially, all the major cable news channels have been doing this, but with less original reporting and more “opinionating,” some heartless and weird, some melodramatic. I’ve only watched a bit of the broadcast networks, because they’re just not as good, a sad fact, and for the most part they have been confining their coverage to appointed news times. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, it’s just how that part of the industry operates.
PBS certainly hasn’t been 24/7 in its coverage, but as usual, they’ve done some of the best work, screening the necessary horror video, but also conducting more enlightening, even provocative conversations about Haiti’s past, near future, and long range future. The cable channels started doing some of this as well earlier tonight, because I think even they realized they just had to let up a bit on the misery and start talking about the next stages of this situation, which will begin to evolve within days and weeks.
Of course we need to know, and see, the terrible reality of the in-the-present details, especially because things in Haiti are still at the very early stage of search, rescue, basic medical treatment, and the distribution of food, water, and other essentials. But we also need to help start the conversation about greater recovery, rebuilding, making a reality of the economic development plan that was just about to be instituted, etc. News reports with discussion segments and talk shows need to do more of this immediately.
Instead of what they usually do in situations like this – and are doing again, about Haiti. The cable channels tend to air the worst of the disaster footage over and over and over, sometimes not always making clear that it is not live and happening in the moment. And they get hung up on the drama of the "baby in the well" stories, real-life tearjerkers that, by their repetition, create a surreal kind of soap opera out of genuine calamity.
I know the most heart-wrenching and the most miraculous stories make for “good TV.” But the 24/7 format has changed journalism from information provider to social uniter; for bad or ill, that’s what’s so. And it would be helpful if the channels did their job in a more sober, thoughtful, intellectual manner. We might then have a shot in hell of recognizing this disaster as a very long-term, serious issue with significant meaning for the potential impact on the US as well as the future of Haiti itself.
Doing so might also help the mainstream media do something else they do too little of: connect the dots between whatever the current crisis is and past events, which is to say, I haven’t heard any talk about the trend of cataclysmic events we’ve endured in the past decade, the increasing number of especially severe floods, famines, storms, earthquakes, and tornadoes (often in unlikely places).
Then connect the dots even further to the mystery viruses and other diseases that have been striking people worldwide, the sickening of animals, the disappearance of the bees, shocking levels of war, terrorism and social unrest, political upheaval, radical religious fervor, the breakdown of language, the super-power of technology run amok. As Bob Dylan said, "There's something happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones."
Because it’s all interconnected, but there’s a global atmosphere of mindless speed and self-involvement (individuals and nations) that is blind to the trend of fundamental, cataclysmic change, a global (you should excuse the expression) paradigm shift. Of course, that’s just the way I see it, I could be wrong. But I’m not alone in these ideas and they’re certainly worth talking about, if only as a stepping stone to learning how to better cope in and with disaster in general. Call it national security and it may not sound so strange.
Much of commercial news media ends up making infotainment out of natural disasters, because they are so visual, as well as frighteningly powerful and seemingly out of our control to predict or prevent. But are they, always? Something skittered quickly across the CNN crawl about scientists who warned of an immanent quake in Haiti — but no one reporting expanded on it.
And we’re soon going to reach the point where the news channels would be better served (and so would we) by offering detailed periodic Haiti updates, while devoting more time to other news as well as other aspects of the Haiti situation. It would be a disaster, if not a surprise, if the media and the public lost interest in Haiti after a year or so, they way they did with Katrina, and the East Asian tsunami, and other ravaging events. A little less showbiz now might pave the way for more sustained attention later.