Saturday, September 13, 2008

Disaster as Spectator Sport

I'm amazed by the media coverage of Hurricane Ike.

I sat, eyes glued to the television, and watched reporters being pummeled by high winds and roaring surf as satellite connections blinked out and they told us about the danger to people who hadn't evacuated Galveston yet.

One thought kept going through my mind, and after an hour or so I was actually yelling at the reporters.


Geraldo Rivera, bless him, had the most dramatic moments that I'm aware of. Of course he did. Geraldo has made a career of dramatic moments, starting back when he was a cub reporter in NYC breaking into Willowbrook to show the world how the poor patients there were being neglected.

Today the Internet is full of video of Geraldo getting knocked on his keister by Hurricane Ike. I tuned in later in the evening, but he was still getting blown sideways and soaked as the anchors back in the warm, cozy studio asked him for the latest conditions.

"The nearby hotel," I heard him say, "has already taken a hit from Ike. Bricks have blown off the building."

Bricks blowing off buildings should be a pretty clear indication that it's time to get indoors and find shelter. But no, the American public needs to know what's going on. We need to see the hurricane as it happens. It's gripping video. And that gets ratings.

This is what the media has come to. A natural disaster can be covered as it happens, reporters who want to make a name for themselves can risk their lives to be in the thick of it, and we can all sit at home and tut-tut over the tragedy. And some can laugh as they watch Geraldo blow over again and again.

I saw the movie "Twister." What I watched felt a lot like that, only it was real. So the line between news and entertainment has grown that much blurrier.

Have we become a nation, perhaps even a world, of voyeurs? Do we need to be able to see everything as it happens because it gives us a visceral punch, makes us feel like we've experienced something?

The news has become our pimp...they give us our fix, keep us revved up with scandal, controversy, adrenaline-pumping danger. And we sit back and watch and demand more.

The news will perform a service after the disaster. It will make us aware of people in need, make the aftermath immediate enough that many of us will be moved to help. But what I saw last night was just another disaster movie. I think I'd have been far more impressed if Geraldo had gotten in out of the weather and encouraged everyone else there to do the same.

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