Paying Attention

If it bleeds it leads.


Unless there is revolution breaking out all over the Middle East.

Unless your military has just wiped out (maybe) a village full of civilians (maybe) in some foreign land.

Unless some state governor, perturbed by the decline of authoritarian regimes across the world, decides to compensate by screwing over workers (who clearly haven’t been punished enough during the Recession).

Unless entirely unexpected wrath-of-God type things happen.  Like snow in winter.

A New Day Dawns
It was a strange feeling, to say the least.  Picking up the morning paper to find an event of momentous significance to you and those you hold most dear tucked into a tiny corner devoted to, in essence, “other foreign happenings.”

We’d arrived home last night after a long day working on Carol and Dave’s kitchen (well, me doing some work on that and then spending most of my time reading and responding to student papers) to find an e-mail from my folks talking about another huge earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Initially, we couldn’t get hold of either set of parents by phone.  Finally I was able to talk to my parents who seemed fine.  While cell service had begun to collapse, landlines were still working and they still had power.  They were watching the first TV pictures.  My mother kept saying “Mark, it’s terrible.  It is just terrible.”  Then, while I was on the phone with them, an aftershock hit.  A big one.  In the background I could hear the house shaking, all the stuff rattling in cupboards.  In the foreground I could hear the terror in my mother’s voice.  In that one moment technology as a mixed blessing became too apparent to me: unprecedented access to those you love, but that same intimate access becomes in moments of crisis a reminder of the cavernous distance between you, and a source of despair.

Eventually we also talked to Mary’s folks who had been out checking on Mary’s brother and his family, rounding up some of their nearest friends, etc.  I stayed up because I wanted to touch base with my family again; my sister works in the central business district of Christchurch, the area most heavily damaged, and there was no word from her.

I read a few more essays.  That didn’t prove sufficiently distracting.  I played an online game for a while but that too wasn’t sufficiently diverting.  I kept searching the web for new information and there wasn’t much.  I tried my parents and Mary’s again but the calls wouldn’t go through.  I left messages via e-mail and Facebook and then went to bed, unable to contact anyone and with the whereabouts of my sister still unknown.

Awoke this morning to find that DC’s promised snow had been, perhaps predictably, a fizzer (standard approach to snowfall estimates in this region should be to take the higher estimate, subtract 4 inches and then divide by two).  A quick scan of my phone showed that all our family members were at least safe (although some were without water and sewage).  The damage to Christchurch was even worse than I’d feared.  Early estimates were for at least 65 killed.

My sister posted a couple of cameraphone photos from her long trek home.  One showed the CTV building, opposite her own workplace.  Five stories tall, filled with people.  Nothing but rubble.

Meet the new media same as the old media
Now I’m aware that deadline probably played a role in the barely-there appearance of the quake in the Washington Post (the quake hit about 7pm our time), even though it was obvious almost immediately that this was big.  This is the age of the info-virus after all; a little more than an hour after the quake hit and there were already pictures and video showing the shattered Cathedral (a butt-ugly and representatively boring monstrosity that is nevertheless the beloved landmark at the heart of the city), pancaked buildings, the injured. . .and the dead.

And it is obviously unrealistic to expect a killer quake to bump Libya off the front page.  When you have a country with whom we’ve had a long and antagonistic relationship (from Reagan doing the Rambo Mambo in the 80s through the Lockerbie bombing) suddenly being plunged into crisis, that is clearly a big deal.  This is even more the case when said crisis is part of an apparently expanding wave of popular dissent challenging the very authoritarian regimes the US has tacitly supported for years, human rights be damned.  (Too harsh?  Saudi Arabia has pledged to support the “government” of Bahrain by whatever means necessary.  If they provide military aid for the Bahrain crackdown is the US going to do more than go “tut-tut?”  I don’t think so.)  It is clearly an important story with enormous implications.  Even if for most people the words “Middle East” will never be more than synonyms for “islamo-fascism” and/or “oil” (in this morning’s paper there was the inevitable story about Libya and the cost of world oil going up; yep, Americans might have to pay more for their already massively under-priced and over-subsidized gas.  The horror).

Yet this is an example of one thing I hate about the news media: its completely predictable calculus of scale and importance.  Anyone who pays close attention to the news (and, admittedly, that is a rapidly shrinking group) knows that this calculus exists.  Some journalists and scholars of journalism will often comment on it, although they tend to disagree on its specifics.

How big does a disaster have to be before it earns coverage in a US news media outlet?  After all, bad shit, ranging from the everyday awful to the truly apocalyptic is happening, on a given day, somewhere in the world.  Often several places in the world.  Well, the starting point, of course, is to figure out how many Americans were involved.  It is even better if they weren’t just involved, but killed.  Now this particular figure, like everything else, has been subject to inflation.  In the good old days Joe Blow holidaying in Oaxaca  when a mudslide hit would probably have made the news.  Now you are going to need a family at least.  Something involving a busload of elderly American tourists is even better. A plane load and you’ve hit the jackpot.

If the news Gods don’t smile on you, however, and you have no American deaths with which you can catch the attention of the US reader (who comes in two varieties: frenetic ADD or soporific) how many deaths of foreigners does it take for something to become a major story?  The short answer, as we can see from coverage of disasters in Africa, the Caribbean, and China is: a lot.  Tens of thousands at least.  Hundreds of thousands might get you a major story.

Cynical?  Possibly.  But no less accurate for all that.  John Taylor in his fascinating book Body Horror: Photojournalism, Catastrophe, and War, offers a convincing demonstration of the standard narrative frames that the Western media puts into play when faced with disasters or conflict in the developing world.  One of the most powerful of these narratives is to portray these countries as inherently fucked up, where famine, disease, and suffering appear as forces of nature.  They are an inevitable condition of life in these places. . .rather than the product of colonialist legacies, modern agribusiness practices, arms sales by the developed world, and so on.  And the second narrative is that the people in these nations are inherently helpless and in need of the West to ride in like a White Knight and save them.  But only temporarily because, as we also know, they are basically fucked because they are foreign.  I can hear the knee-jerk denials building, but just go back and look at the coverage of the Haitian quake, especially the first couple of weeks, and you’ll see that Taylor has considerable grounds for his argument.

In some way, the West will always try to make a story about the essential foreigness of foreigners into a story about our values.  This is why the news media loves the “Facebook Revolution” template so much.  “Oh look, those primitive foreigners, wallowing in their oppression, were able to use our social media tools to be revolting. . .er, to stage their revolution!  They are pretty awesome.  But we are even more awesome for having invented Twitter in the first place!  How developed are we!”

But this is the essence of “news” coverage: it isn’t really interested in the new unless it can be made familiar in some way.  This extends even to the language.  I can’t be the only person who gets tired of the predictable formats associated with different stories.  I don’t have any journalistic training and I could write a story about certain subjects.  Earthquake stories have to include the word “rocked” at some point, for example.  Mudslide stories will inevitably include the word “torrential.”

So you get an earthquake in a place like New Zealand.  How do you handle this?  Let’s assume, for convenience sake, that no Americans were killed.  You also don’t have large New Zealand populations in the US, so that motive is also out.  (If you don’t talk about them the Kiwis in the US are not likely to make a lot of domestic trouble for your PR machine).  Now in the first place, there aren’t that many people who seem to be killed.  Certainly not the same number as we would normally require for this to be newsworthy.  However, they seem to be people like us (kinda WASPY looking), therefore inherently more valuable than people in Africa and other developing regions,  so the tens-of-thousands-of-dead rule probably doesn’t apply.  Can someone pass me the conversion table for non-American Westerners, please?  But wait a minute, this isn’t exactly a developing nation.  It seems to have a pretty well-developed infrastructure, functioning emergency services, large parts of the affected city still standing (for now).  Certainly the fact that they just had another big earthquake last year helps with the “inherently fucked up domain of chaos” element, but it’s probably not quite enough.  Moreover, since these people are Westerners (sort of, more like mini-Westies) they don’t exactly need Westerners to come riding to their rescue.  They also don’t seem to be using their twitter feeds a lot.  I dunno, I’m stuck.  How do we frame this one?

Attention Deficit
Yes, I’m in a mood.  But as I tell Mary all the time, that doesn’t mean that I’m not right (OK.  Now I’m going to need a place to stay tonight.  Anyone?).  Part of this is because I’m writing out of a place of helplessness and sadness (which is, I think, where the remaining 5% of blog posts–those that that aren’t about how thoroughly awesome and under-appreciated the writer is–are all about).   The city where I passed a significant part of my life is gone.  Part of it went last September.  A lot more of it went this time.  More of it is going with every significant aftershock.

In that sorrow I’m thinking a lot about what globalization and global citizenship and the brave new world of instant media really means.  On the one hand, it was great to have all the media tools at my disposal last night.  On the other hand, while every cell phone minute and Facebook wall post made me feel more there, they also made me feel more stuck in the here.   In terms of the globalized world, the hard fact is that the globe only exists to the extent that the US (still the world’s powerhouse, even though you can almost see and feel that influence waning, see its demise in every rusted bridge, cracked roadway and powergrid failure) says it does.  If the US isn’t paying attention, it isn’t really happening.

Except it is really happening.  What we need is not the “either/or” options of the news media (mainstream and alternative are equally guilty of ethnocentrism) or the bizarre calculi of how many human beings have to die before a story is deemed worthy to accompany the average American’s toast and coffee.

Yet, such a demand for an equality and dignity for all suffering some how feels churlish because it is so unrealistic and therefore so unlikely.

So I guess what I’m really feeling is insignificance.  My own, certainly, in the face of upsetting events happening to friends and families.  But also the insignificance of coming from a tiny nation in the back of beyond with no oil reserves to speak of and little strategic importance, known to most people only as a setting for fantasy.

Dolphins in Calm Waters
Aotearoa/New Zealand is, however, a real place.  Even a surreal place at times.  We have our own rather odd ways of looking at the world, from our small situation.  I thought I would leave you with the following piece.  It comes from the local Christchurch newspaper, The Press, and their coverage of the first big earthquake, back in September of 2010.  The paper offered a breakdown of the damage sustained by the city, suburb-by-suburb.  Here is their account of the damage to the coastal suburb of Sumner:

Damage to lots of chimneys in the area, some fallen down and damaged roofs. Also damage to Ruptured Duck Restaurant (wall cracked), Cave Rock B&B (part of roof collapsed), and red church. One road (near Rugby club) has sand volcano (water pipe burst). A longitudinal slip on road between Sumner and Redcliffs by the cliffs area, a rock or two tumbled down into the park in that area too. Crevasses in sand near the Surf Club. On a brighter side some dolphins were observed just off Sumner beach on 4 Sept around 2pm, in the calm waters.


4 responses to “Paying Attention

  1. World famous in New Zealand media personality John Campbell stated this morning (live from the heart of the ruin) that the pack of international journalists who have descended on our ruined city are there because, unlike other natural disasters, this is the first time in years that a WESTERN culture’s city has been so badly devastated in an event like this.

    • Wow. I wonder if there is hope that I too could one day be world famous in New Zealand? (Love that phrase, it perfectly captures a kind of very-kiwi self-absorption that I remember all too well!) “I coulda ben a contenda! Well, in New Zild, at least. Well, they loved me in Temuka. . .”

  2. I did tell Damaris that you should write columns for newspapers – except that because you use in-depth analysis, carefully thought out ideas and reference relevant source material – you writing would have no place in modern journalism

  3. Aha! of course we might be bumped up the ratings a little because of the former senator and his wife who were in town and the US USAR crew who’ve arrived to lend aide…..

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