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Too Big

By
January 20, 2005

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By now, images of the tsunami that thrashed and engulfed Asian coastlines on 26 December have begun to fade from U.S. television. Other news has inevitably pushed aside the breathlessly narrated amateur videos (“Get back, get back, get back!”) showing huge muddy walls of water or that hauntingly tiny figure suddenly standing as if startled, on a vast beach, swept up within seconds. Between “deep freezes,” Brad and Jen, and SPC Graner’s mom, the news has been swirling since Christmas. And this week, with the presidential inauguration upon us, U.S. viewers are watching Condoleezza Rice sitting pert and even offended before a Senate committee and Laura Bush guiding smiling reporters through the details of designer gowns and dinner menus.

This hardly means the disaster is over, that victims have moved on or even been afforded the medical or food supplies they need, or even that the ex-presidents’ appeal has stopped rotating (Bush 41: “No one can change what happened”; Clinton: “But we can all change what happens next”). It only means that audiences who feel overwhelmed by roaring waves, demolished shorelines, and “DigitalGlobe” transformation imagery now have other pictures to attract their valuable, shorter-and-shorter bits of attention.

The complexity and enormity… it’s too big for the TV screen.

–Chris Cramer, CNN International (4 January 2005)

The pace, glut, and perpetual cycling of cable news have been blamed for all sorts of “fatigue,” as viewers turn off the war in Iraq and The Bachelorette. Tsunami coverage reportedly bumped ratings for tv news in general and CNN in particular during the early days of the “aftermath.” In a New York Post story, Fordam University’s Paul Levinson names possible reasons for the popularity of this “show,” including the mounting death toll and the home videos: “It’s almost as if anyone in any place can be a potential cameraman for a television news show,” he says. “One of the things that’s keeping the public interest really perked is the fresh video that emerges everyday” (Don Kaplan, “It’s Like No Other Story,” 31 December 2004).

There’s both something crass and canny about this assessment, at least as it apparently drove news agencies in their decisions concerning coverage. Star reporters like Diane Sawyer, Christiane Amanpour, Sanjay Gupta, and Soledad O’Brien were flown to Thailand or Sri Lanka, walking ravaged beaches, speaking compassionately with weeping and resilient locals. And even as these celebrity reporters delivered the “human” angle, the news shows back home are focused on the tsunami story as a function of numbers — body counts, “pounds of aid,” national donation competitions, devoted minutes of airtime. As the networks compete (CNN earns points for delivering 24-hour news, Fox retains its claim on “fair and balanced,” Brian Williams jumps directly into the anchor fray), viewers halfway across the globe remain, as Steven Winn puts it, spectators of disaster, distanced, sheltered, momentarily fascinated (“Caught up as spectators to a far-away disaster,” San Francisco Chronicle, 4 January 2005).

Good evening. It’s been 12 days since the tsunami hit, and the death toll keeps going up. As we move into the second week of aftermath, you’re going to see some very compelling, very heart-wrenching stories tonight.

–Alex Witt, MSNBC Special (7 January 2005)

Though raw “home-movie” style footage quickly incites feelings of awe and horror, even sadness, the emotional drama expected by sophisticated media consumers needs to be built. And so Western news crews went in search of the close-up and personal, as these elements are understood by middle Americans (not to say Red Staters): white people who could tell their stories in English, white babies reportedly sold into sex slavery, elephants and dogs who instinctively made their way to higher ground (thank you, Jack Hanna), mothers forced to choose between their children (only a useable story because, miraculously, both are saved), supermodels searching for their boyfriends, the Office Max Rubberband man returning safely to the U.S. The nature’s fury pictures conjured big-screenish amazement, and shots of dead or battered brown/Asian bodies turned into spectacle of another sort. According to the AP’s David Bauder, tv newscasts adopted a rule of thumb to show less explicit death than newspapers, because, says NBC News vice president Bill Wheatley, “We never forget that we are a guest in people’s homes” (TV News Avoids Graphic Tsunami Images,” 2 January 2005). That, and, the FCC is on a seemingly never-ending warpath.

Eventually, the broken bodies-and-buildings images gave way to inspirational tales: survivor kids’ drawings of the hill where they found refuge, doctors on their way to Aceh, tourists on their way outta there. And of course, the Marines. After all that ungrateful talk about GWB’s tardy, stingy responses to the crisis, not to mention the ongoing failure to contain the Iraqi “insurgency,” the Marines could embody the American Way, that hardy faith in democracy and technology and plenty, that assertion by Colin Powell that the U.S. is “the greatest contributor to international efforts in the world.” (Like every other aspect of U.S. reputation anxiety, this assertion is about hard numbers, not proportions, and certainly not perspectives other than the administration’s.) Now the troops could be tossing crates and sacks from chopper doors (one repeated shot literally showed an aid deliverer dropping his package and racing back to the relative safety of his helicopter). As if by media magic, the South Asian disaster became a U.S. PR “issue.”

Even for all this hard journalistic work to maintain the “perk” for viewers, interest in the disaster was already flagging by the time of the Tsunami Aid concert. (It’s been called a telethon, because it was originally, on 15 January, live and featured Hollywood types answering phones, but it was only two hours — not exactly a “thon.”) NBC and its many versions aired (and reran, all night) Tsunami Aid: A Concert for Hope, which did not provide the much-anticipated throwdown between George Clooney and Bill O’Reilly, but only earnest appeals for donations. Leno pitched star-autographed signed coffee cups and telephones, while slightly less hucksterish folks like Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, and Meg Ryan (who describes the child survivors like so: “They climbed trees, they floated on mattresses, they clung to pieces of wood and other debris in the water, mostly, they ran”) asked for donations.

The tsunami, which so far has taken more than 150,000 lives, is not just a natural disaster on an unimaginably catastrophic scale; it is also a television-ready crisis.

–Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times (17 January 2005)

In between, the show offered musical performances (Madonna, Nora Jones, Mary J. Blige, Brian Wilson, Nelly, Stevie Wonder, and Annie Lennox—in other words, the usual suspects) and decidedly un-graphic video packages (one was titled “The Tsunami Generation,” others “Physical Aftermath” and “Psychological Aftermath”), precisely edited recuperations of the same videos you’ve been seeing for the past three weeks, preserving your detachment while shaping your response: call in and get that coffee mug now. As Alessandra Stanley observes in her New York Times, the concert mounted to raise money yielded mixed results: “When Hollywood stars attach themselves to a noteworthy cause, the tableau can turn into an Escher print. At one moment, the effort looks brightly inspiring — famous faces at the service of anonymous victims of a faraway tragedy. At another, darker outlines of vanity and self-promotion dominate” (“Harnessing Star Power to Help a Worthy Cause,” New York Times, 17 January 2005). Moreover, the mix fell short of tv suits’ dreams, drawing the evening’s smallest network audience (something like a 2.0 share), with Fox’s playoff football winning the night (12.6).

These particular numbers beg the question: what is the relationship between tv and tsunami fatigue? Or more broadly, how does tv shape — or better, become — global politics? The reduction of cable news cycles (for every story save Scott Peterson, anyway) affects the window for potential action. Thus, U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland’s accusation that the initial U.S. pledge of $15 million was stingy needed to hit tv and computer screens quickly in order to have a desired effect (more funds extracted). Similarly, the U.S. had to correct that image course instantly, deploying Paul Wolfowitz and Jeb Bush on observation-style missions that only looked different.

These official visitors/assessors came equipped by reporters looking to make their own sorts of images. As Jacques Steinberg, puts it in “Reporting Live From Hell: TV Scrambles for Glory,” the media assault constituted its own well-considered publicity machine. “The tsunami,” he writes, “hit at a moment of transition and high competitiveness” for anchors Dan Rather and Brian Williams (New York Times, 10 January 2005). Nothing like a deadly catastrophe to make journalists and nations look important. And nothing like the next news cycle to shake all that importance loose again.

G

Cynthia Fuchs is Director of George Mason University’s Film & Media Studies Program, as well as film-tv-dvd editor for PopMatters.com, and film reviewer for Philadelphia Citypaper (citypaper.net) and Screenit.com. She has published articles on hiphop, Prince, Michael Jackson, the Spice Girls, queer punks, “bad” kids in Bully and George Washington, and media coverage of the war against Iraq. She edited Spike Lee: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press 2002), and co edited Between the Sheets, In the Streets: queer, lesbian, and gay documentary (University of Minnesota 1997).

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