Trying to find more than a surface report on what was going on with Hurricane Katrina on television was a hopeless and frustrating waste of time. Perhaps the greatest and most idiosyncratic city in the country had been laid to waste, and a vast low-lying rural region was underwater, but you'd barely know it from channel surfing. The networks were showing their usual array of entertainment shows, unbothered by the staggering human suffering happening at the moment, and the horrors that were so obviously to come. The news networks were replaying videos of attractive "reporters" standing in the wind and rain, yelling about the wind and rain. These people were little more than rodeo clowns to Mother Nature's bull.
On CNN, Nancy Grace the hysterical, adenoidal former criminal prosecutor whose typical M.O. is to prattle on about inconsequential crimes and to pillory those whom she's decided are to blame spent a significant part of her show talking about that teenage blonde girl who disappeared in Aruba three months ago. This story is news for the singular reason that the major news networks think that a story about an attractive blonde girl being abducted by men with dark skin and all of the lurid, pornographic subtext that goes along with it is something that will sell advertising. Which makes those who continue to tell us about this sad but manifestly irrelevant event not journalists, but well-scrubbed two-bit whores.
Meantime, MSNBC gave us Tucker Carlson the pasty neocon lapdog whose career should have ended when Jon Stewart called him out on "Crossfire" last year with a faux-concerned facial expression hovering over his pathetic bowtie, talking to various governmental talking heads, all situated far from the action, about what they thought was happening.
There was no real reporting going on. Most of the "news" that was broadcast was trivial: folks restarting the party in the French Quarter, and a nearby graveyard statue of Jesus that "miraculously" survived the storm. An inordinate amount of time was spent telling us that our president had interrupted his vacation to be "concerned" and had pledged federal money to help. Duh! Occasionally a ridiculous statistic was announced: "Three confirmed dead in Mississippi; more deaths expected. Now the cleanup begins!"
An attentive eighth-grader could have told you that Katrina, perhaps the most massive and potent hurricane in modern history to hit the U.S. continent, had caused unspeakable damage to one of the poorest and environmentally delicate and vulnerable regions of the country. When Katrina's eye was still a dot in the gulf it was obvious to anybody with half a brain that we were headed for a massive, unprecedented disaster. The death count is now headed to four figures and maybe beyond. Sure, there was a massive evacuation, but what about those too poor, too stubborn, too suspicious, too infirm, too off-the-grid to get away? They remain in the crosshairs. May we know about them, care about them? The networks couldn't let the true grim reality of the hurricane get in the way of market share. So let's get a quick quote from Mississippi governor and political hack Haley Barbour, and then air "Tommy Lee Goes to College."
The same thing happened with the tsunami in December. Eight hours after the 90-foot wave hit one of the most densely populated coastlines in the world, the news services were reporting absurdities like "35 confirmed dead in Sri Lanka." Then on to such banner topics as Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart. The networks and cable news services are simply lazy, stupid, and cheap. They are beneath contempt.
Monday, I found a local TV station in New Orleans with an Internet feed that provided jarring, old-school journalism. While Anderson Cooper danced in the rain on CNN, the local newscasters on WWL (you can see them at wwltv.com) were somberly delivering what was actually happening, much of it based on first-person observations: bodies floating in canals, levees breaking, the roof shredding off the Superdome (while tens of thousands of terrified refugees cowered inside), and the shell-shocked Mayor Nagin's unvarnished descriptions of the carnage. And WWL didn't break for commercials.
This shocking reality was barely hinted at on network and cable television. I watched WWL in horror until I could watch no more. A few hours later I tried to log on again and couldn't get on I'd guess the capacity of the station's servers was exceeded by others who simply wanted to know what was going on.
At 11 p.m., I tuned into Jon Stewart, certain that he would reinforce, with his trademark ingenious humor, the disgust I was feeling. But his show was a repeat. He probably couldn't take it either. S
Paul Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany, N.Y. and Housatonic, Mass., and teaches art-and-entertainment and copyright law at Albany Law School. He is a contributing writer to Metroland, an alternative newsweekly based in Albany, where this essay was first published.
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