It's almost embarrassing. Well, it is embarrassing. There's more to talk about with the Katrina catastrophe than can possibly fit in one blog, yet right now I'm finding it difficult to locate the time, or focus to write. As I said earlier, "work stuffs" is happening. But more importantly, we are being inundated with news coverage of this disaster. And every person who has been there in person says the cameras can't capture a tenth of the devastation in the region. It's hard to comprehend the scope of this tragedy. I can't even begin to imagine what kind of overload the people working the scene are going through. When we hear reports of police officers and firefighters committing suicide and walking off the job, when we see reporters frantically trying to scrub tears away from their faces as they struggle not to lose it on national television, when we actually do see otherwise thick-skinned politicians losing it, we start to get a sense of the magnitude.
And like all great stories, some of the most interesting storylines don't come from the main plot, but as spinoffs going in different directions. One thing we've noticed is how the shell on the national media is cracking. For so many years, news has been dominated by poofy-haired, all-knowing, softball-throwing anchors. Nothing penetrated that glossy veneer. Sure, Peter Jennings looked pretty haggard after reporting on September 11th for 60 straight hours, but overall Americans learned to associate "news" with "boring". It wasn't always this way. When Edward Murrow was broadcasting from London during the blitz, Americans were starved for news, for commentary, for knowledge about the world outside. News broadcasts were the keystones of the three major networks, providing them with their viewers and their revenues. What changed?
In 1980, CNN stumbled onto the scene - the first 24-hour newscast in the world. They had certain advantages over network news: while they incurred the same costs to gather news, they could use it and replay it all day long. Networks still had to pay for 22 hours of non-news related programming to fill the time. In addition, it provided a convenient place for people to get news now. The news junkie was invented. And CNN's successes launched a virtual cavalcade of imitators. CBC Newsworld, EuroNews, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, BBC 24, and of course Fox News (sic). Unfortunately, as we know, there is not 24 hours worth of news to report, and with the increased competition, made-up news became the order of the day. Who gives a shit about Natalee Holloway? Why, the millions of Americans who wish they could also watch their daytime soaps at night.
CNN had its shining moment in 1991, when billions of people around the globe watched the Gulf War through Bernard Shaw's eyes. People tuned in during the 2001 attacks on New York and DC. But when it came to the really important stories and the hard-hitting investigative reporting that peaked in the mid-seventies, nobody cared anymore. News was boring. There was no connection anymore. The emotional bond viewers shared with Murrow and Cronkite had been severed. Viewers wanted emotion and connection. And of all the networks, startup Fox was the only one that understood. I actually watched Fox for a few months when it rolled out in 1996. I enjoyed the additional information in the scrolls, the extra emphasis on visuals over talk, the added emotion of the anchors. I stopped watching, however, when they took that emotion and went a few steps too far, into the land of fake outrage and political insults and openly partisan slants. They're still the only ones that "get it", though. CNN added flashy graphics and loudmouthed commentators, but no emotional connection.
The other night, after Anderson Cooper spent an hour paddling around New Orleans, CNN had a special report about reporting on Katrina and her aftermath. I forgot who the presenter was, but he asked two questions: "What happens when journalists become part of the story they're telling?" and "Has Katrina changed journalism?"
Reporting is certainly different during Katrina. Reporters, seeing things they weren't even exposed to in Kosovo or Iraq, were horrified. They forgot that they were supposed to be 5-minute entertainers and started being human, throwing microphones in front of mealy-mouthed politicians and not accepting their bullshit. Cooper was talking to Louisiana Governor Blanco, and started drilling her on how pissed it made him, standing waist deep in toxic sludge, watching politicians smile and pat each other on the back telling each other what a great job they were doing. Is this what happens when journalists become part of the story?
I say no - this is what happens when journalists forget how wooden they're supposed to be. Journalists are always part of the story. When they report on environmental issues or tax issues or elections, they are just as impacted as every other citizen. Of course they're part of the story. I know that. You know that. The reporter just seems to have forgotten. And their false detachment is part of the reason other Americans have stopped caring. The Truth has gotten lost in stoicism masquerading as objectivity.
So has Katrina changed journalism? I certainly hope so. I hope these reporters stay pissed off for a long time. I hope they remember that they represent 6 billion people who can't investigate for themselves. I hope they remember that they are members of those 6 billion. But I also hope they can avoid the temptation of becoming "emotional" about every fake story that will inevitably come along. Faking emotion - faking anger and outrage like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are so good at - is so damaging to real news that people tune out faster than when news is boring. They lose trust. And while I know that teaching Americans not to trust the "mainstream media" has been a mission of the Right Wing PR machine, it's not too late for journalists to become advocates of the people again. To be the eyes and ears and voices for the people. For the survivors of Katrina, for the concerned citizens 2000 miles away, for the dead victims. And for the people who live through every news story, whether or not the media has the balls to cover it correctly.