I distrust the media. This is entirely separate from believing the media to be biased, and it is also separate from believing that the media intentionally sets out to deceive. My distrust goes to the nature of our visual news medium and, I realized in conversation tonight with my family, dates back to October 17, 1989.
I was on vacation on October 17, 1989. My friend and I came back from a raft trip and, as we were walking through the parking lot, heard a strutting teenage boy boast to two awestruck teenage girls that San Francisco had been destroyed by an earthquake. My friend and I discounted his story, which we assumed was a complete put-on to impress the girls. When we returned to our hotel room, though, we saw on CNN that a large earthquake had, in fact, struck the San Francisco Bay Area. I was terribly worried about my parents, who lived in the City, not to mention wondering whether I had a home awaiting my return. CNN had non-stop footage of devastation — collapsed buildings, flames leaping into the sky, freeways destroyed, etc. After an hour of this, I stopped worrying just about my family and my own home, and started wondering whether the City would ever rise again.
And then I watched another hour and caught on to something. There had definitely been severe damage, with the highest loss of life tied to the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland. Someone had also died when a single span of the top section of the Bay Bridge collapsed. But these were extremely local problems — tragic, but defined. And as I watched more and more footage, I realized, as only a San Franciscan could, that the other footage — the collapsed buildings and the fires — were in just two locations. One was the Marina District, which had long been a disaster waiting to happen, since all the houses were built on sand and fill. The other was a single corner in downtown San Francisco. Sure, CNN could change the camera angles all it wanted, which would mislead those not familiar with the City, but to one familiar with the City’s geography, the ruination was just as defined as that which occurred on the Nimitz or the Bay Bridge.
When I eventually returned home, I was able to confirm my realization that CNN was using visuals to make the disaster seem further reaching than it was. The City was still without power in many neighborhoods when I got back, but in other neighborhoods, life was untouched. My parents lost a TV and a plate. I came home to find one of my pictures hanging crooked. (My parents and I lived in buildings built into rock.) Some of my colleagues had, sadly, lost their homes entirely; others had lost knick knacks or had damage to their cars. All had frightening stories to relate about escaping from the highrises. It had been an adventure for everyone, an inconvenience for many, and a life terminating tragedy for 66 people. Economic losses were huge.
What the earthquake wasn’t, was the Armageddon-like tragedy that CNN had been pushing on its newscast. In the same way, while Hurricane Katrina was truly a disaster, it too wasn’t another Armageddon-like tragedy, complete with cannibalism, no matter what the MSM was touting.
It’s true that the media’s pushing the tragic dimensions of Hurricane Katrina had a definite political edge to it — given the media’s hostility to the Bush administration. The same, however, cannot be said for the Loma Prieta quake reporting. This reporting was devoid of political orientation, and the MSM still managed to present it as the End of Days. This is the nature of a visual medium. In the competitive world of modern news, one old adage still drives the press: “If it bleeds, it leads.” And there is no better way to present that oh-so-attractive blood than to point the cameras at the nearest tragedy, regardless of the normalcy surrounding that tight shot. Visual balance doesn’t sell TV commercials.
And so I distrust the press. The latest example, of course, was CNN’s tawdry coverage of Hezbollah neighborhoods, a journey its reporters took with a Hezbollah tour guide. Mark Steyn rightly compared this to the useful idiots walking placidly through Trezienstadt, clinging to their ignorance about the ultimate fate of the violin playing Jewish inmates they so admired. Even the CNN reporters, while they wouldn’t admit in their own broadcast to their visual game-playing, conceded that they had absolutely no idea what the truth was, and were just going for the good photo-ops. To the extent the reporters are probably less pro-Israel than I am, they may not have minded the little charade they played. But again, I’ll acquit them of political malice and just say that their shoddy, dishonest reporting has its roots in the inherent falsity of the visual medium in which they work.
So, next time you watch the news, remember not to believe everything you see.