Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hurricane? What Hurricane?

Remember investigative reporting? It seems no more than a foggy concept from our distant past, but there was actually a time when we could count on our news media to report things that mattered to the nation. There was Walter Cronkite (who as a news anchor was once “the most trusted man in America”) reporting from Vietnam, addressing the nation with news that this was a war that America couldn’t win, and backing it up with some first hand information in addition to what was then horrific footage. There was a time when the media even played government watchdog, as in the days of Nixon and Watergate.

But today, our news media seems to have been reduced to fleets of reporters in rain slickers waiting for natural disasters. They’re arguably worse than ambulance chasers, choosing not to persue, but rather to stand on street corners in hopes that an accident might happen. Technology has improved so that information can be disseminated instantly from anywhere in the world, yet the people that use it are focused on bringing us 24 hour coverage of the weather, and speculation about Michael Jackson. Today’s investigative reporting is defined by Geraldo standing next to a large puddle in Galveston, Texas asking “How in the world are they going to deal with this?” and demanding “I need military assistance right here, right now!”

I spent this past weekend at a music festival in Austin, Texas. The eye of the hurricane had been predicted by the National Weather Service to be directly over Austin at 1 PM on Saturday. As it turned out, the hurricane ended up elsewhere, but the hysteria was still painfully evident - not a vacancy to be had, people at grocery marts with shopping carts loaded to the brim with bottled water (and junk food), a potential gas shortage at the pumps and the world’s longest traffic jam out on the interstate (in one direction). The religious talk radio program blaring in our taxi from the airport insisted that the rapture was undoubtedly upon us.

Now, I’m not suggesting that warning people of potential danger from natural disasters is a bad thing. Far from it. But that’s not what the media is doing. If warning people had even been on their priority radar, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may very well have been reduced. No, the media barrage came afterwards. Tragedy, misfortune and death, now that sells advertising! So, not only were we inundated with it in the wake of the first storm, but oh rapture, there was a second “even bigger” one coming right behind. Who needs Hollywood? The end of the world, or at least the gulf coast, was going to be brought to us live on CNN et al.

The real tragedy in all of this hype is that what should really matter to us isn’t making the news channels or headlines. Imagine, the richest country in the world can’t take care of its own citizens in times of trouble. Instead, it’s as if a disaster had occurred in a third world country. The Salvation Army, Red Cross and United Way are begging for donations. Televised professional sports events are covered with 1-800 numbers to call in your donation. It’s only a matter of time before Bob Geldoff organizes a multi-continental “US Aid”. A country of unparalleled wealth brought to its knees by a single storm. How could that have happened? Maybe Michael Jackson can tell us?

Still, it’s not like our news media hasn’t been distracting the population from real issues for many years. And, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s happening because it’s the media’s “modus operandi”, or because we the people want to be distracted and the media is just following suit. We can all take some of the responsibility.

The storm reports have been a welcome diversion from the increasingly mundane carnage in Iraq. The incessant Iraq coverage was convenient filler as opposed to prying into other potentially sticky issues like election fraud in Ohio and sky rocketing “earmarking” in the US federal budget process (can you say money laundering?). Hell, at least there are explosions and wailing mothers to watch in Iraq.

Oh yeah, and then there's Gary Condit, the only man in America happy for the media blitz that accompanied 9/11. Who is Gary Condit you ask? I rest my case.